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Binge It or Bin It? Bernice Chauly’s Debut Novel ‘Once We Were There’

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Cooler Lumpur Festival saw a host of events and workshops this year. For the first time, we’re seeing a tie-up with the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) set to take place in November.

Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng made an appearance to talk about the upcoming independent book festival, and it’s only fitting that GTLF’s Festival Director, Bernice Chauly, launched her debut novel Once We Were There.

BerniBernice Chauly - Once We Were There - Debut Novel - Malaysia - Reformasi Movement - Mahathir - Anwar Ibrahim - The Cooler Lumpur Festival - George Town Literary Festival - GTLF

Chauly explains why it was initially titled The New Gods, “I wanted to look at the gods of money, and drugs, and sex. It was something that was new. We were coming out of the Asian Financial Crisis, and we all needed to embrace something that we could believe in.”

This book strives to be a lot of things, and this is its primary shortcoming. It wants to be a political novel, an advocate for transgender rights, a beacon of race relations; the list goes on. But it also wants to be an intensely relateable and human novel.

It’s very much the dissociative identity disorder of books, but we’ve narrowed down it’s true personality for you.

Once We Were There has been marketed as a tale of the Reformasi Movement (Reformation Movement). A time in Malaysian history that Chauly tells us hasn’t been documented.

“There’s so little that’s written about it. So little of it written about in a way that I want to read. It’s contemporary, it’s gritty, it’s real, it’s very dark, and quite bleak at times. So I was essentially writing a book that I wanted to read.”

You know, other than the thousands of articles online.

Even then, these political themes weave in and out of the book. They’re inconsistent and more a byproduct of liberal masturbation than of any actual substance. Being both trite and myopic, it tells a very one-dimensional story of the period, and we wouldn’t recommend this book if that’s what you’re looking to read about.

“I just really wanted to write a Malaysian story about a very important time in our history.”

It’s also not a novel about Malaysia or being a patriot, as much as Chauly says it is. In fact, the Malaysian elements of this book are so incidental that they are generalisable across the board.

Bernice Chauly - Once We Were There - Debut Novel - Malaysia - Reformasi Movement - Mahathir - Anwar Ibrahim - The Cooler Lumpur Festival - George Town Literary Festival - GTLF

When Descriptions Go Awry

Chauly’s process in writing this book was steeped in research and self-reflection, “I like to draw on experiences that are real, not necessarily imagined or fictional, but I think the impetus for writing this story is very much an experience that changed me. Being part of the Reformasi Movement, being out on the streets, being tear gassed, being angry, believing in what Anwar represented was all part of the motivation of writing this book.”

With run on sentences that bleed into paragraphs, tacky sex scenes, and a lack of understanding of how substance abuse truly works, the descriptions lend nothing to this book.

On the whole though, we’re glad we persevered through the painful bits because the underlying tale is worth a read. After all, it is her debut novel.

“This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s very challenging. You doubt yourself; you’re filled with self-loathing and doubt when you’re writing a novel because so much of it is, you just don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Should You Read It?

You should probably start halfway through the book, but yes you should. The actual storyline that’s buried within the convoluted and unreadable descriptive elements are really quite good.

Bernice Chauly - Once We Were There - Debut Novel - Malaysia - Reformasi Movement - Mahathir - Anwar Ibrahim - The Cooler Lumpur Festival - George Town Literary Festival - GTLF

It’s overarchingly a book for women, specifically mothers. In light of Al Jazeera‘s exposé on child trafficking in Malaysia, this is the book that will inject a personal element to these fears.

It’s a book you should read to remind you not to leave your child unattended for even half a second. And it’s a book that deals with the very real aftermath of those consequences. The breakdown of a marriage, mental stability, and even the will to live. It’s very real, and very heartwrenching. And Chauly has captured these elements beautifully, no doubt owing to the fact that she, herself, has children.

Without giving you any spoilers, we’re fans of how the book ends. We’ll just leave it at that.

Want to decide for yourself? We have two autographed copies of Once We Were There to give away. To enter:

Terms & Conditions

  • Each winner will win one (1) autographed copy of the book
  • This giveaway is open internationally
  • The giveaway will run from 5th September, 2017 – 21st September, 2017
  • Winners will be announced on 22nd September, 2017
  • Should you win but we fail to receive a response within 48 hours, a different winner will be chosen

Good luck! – The Binge

 

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