Apr 06

Review: Handpicked by Siew Siang Tay

I received this book for free from ARC received from publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Handpicked by Siew Siang TayHandpicked by Siew Siang Tay
Published by Fourth Estate on 2009
Genres: contemporary, fiction
Pages: 341
Source: ARC received from publisher
Buy on Amazon

What is it like to stake everything on a relationship based only on letters?Laila is desperate to escape life in the longhouse in her Malaysian village. Desperate enough to travel alone to Australia to marry Jim, a fruit-picker living in Renmark, South Australia.Jim hasn't had much luck with women -- they've always given him a hard time. He pins his hopes on Laila changing all that. Marital bliss, a new life.But when Laila and Jim finally meet, they each discover the reality of the other, and things don't go as planned.Handpicked is a subtle and sensitive exploration of the world of the mail-order bride. It is also a compelling and finely observed account of expectations and consequences, words and actions, truth and love.

I always take a deep breath before diving into a debut novel. I like to have some idea of the direction a story will take, or at least a basic expectation of style or content, before beginning. I was pleased that I took the chance on Handpicked by Malaysian-born Australian author Siew Siang Tay.

Handpicked is a gentle love story offering empathetic central characters with very real hopes, flaws and strengths.

Tired of cramped living quarters in her Malaysian village, Laila’s longing for a better life leads her to join a dating service. She meets Jim, a South Australian fruit picker and after a year of correspondence, accepts Jim’s proposal and plane ticket to a new life in Australia.

Soon after her arrival, Laila’s hopes of a comfortable life are crushed when she discovers that Jim lives in a caravan. Jim and Laila struggle to overcome their disappointments and unmet expectations, leading to a relationship that dissolves into unhappiness and arguments. Eventually, Laila leaves Jim believing that she will have her needs met by another man who lives a more financially secure life.

Jim and Laila are very convincingly yet gently portrayed. They struggle with their own expectations and their frustration with the limitations they perceive in each other, but not themselves. Abusive scenes between Laila and her lover are confronting, in contrast to the gentle portrayal of her relationship with Jim.

While Handpicked does venture to explore the clash of cultures to a certain degree, the themes are generally more universal. Both Laila and Jim must learn to value themselves before they are able to truly appreciate each other.

Handpicked is a very touching love story told with great sensitivity by Siang Tay. I enjoyed reading it and found that Laila’s story in particular stayed with me. I really enjoyed the novelty of the South Australian setting and Laila’s connection with the river, both in her village in Malaysia and in Renmark, created a lovely ongoing image throughout the story.


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