A nice girl from humble beginnings meets a boy. Unbeknownst to her, he is absolutely loaded. Luckily for her this ignorance is the reason why he enjoys her company. All she has to contend with now are the upper-society bitches and his vicious Tiger Mom, who intends on taking her son’s best interests into her own hands. In the end the girl wins. Am I talking about Crazy Rich Asians or Lilian Chan’s book?
The blurb of Voice in My Head promised a tale of anguish and darkness. Tessa Goh can read minds. With that comes the misfortune of learning what everyone thinks of her. Watch as she crumbles. I don’t think the mental-illness connotation of a title like ‘Voice in My Head’ is lost on anyone. At the least I was expecting some introspection on the part of the characters, and the complexities, sympathies and resentments something like mind-reading could brew. Twisting the reader’s expectations by pulling something completely different isn’t a problem (see the Crazy Rich Asians comparison). But falling short of them is.
For a premise so highly regarded that it dominates the title of the book, the mind-reading rarely makes it into the plot. It makes a regular appearance in the beginning, before tapering off once the drama starts taking place, as if forgotten. The only time the mind-reading really moves the plot forwards is to foreshadow the bitchiness of the Tiger Mom, Datin Shankar*. Tessa hears some very unpleasant thoughts, and thus the tension commences. And then that’s all for the mind-reading.
I must praise the author for this idea’s potentiality. However, it’s neglect is disappointing. As overplayed as the women-fighting-over-man storyline is, it makes for a plot rich in opportunities for the mind-reading to wrench the story into another, unexpected direction. At the height of the conflict, Tessa learns from her best friend Jeff that her new boyfriend Aran Shankar is hiding a dark secret. Imagine the drama, should she have discovered that herself! Not to mention the massive plot-hole of a mind-reading girl not being able to read her boyfriend’s mind in the first place.
(*Datin, as well as other non-English words, are italicized in the book.).
While the mind-reading fades out of existence, it is unfortunately not replaced by something more promising. What ensues is nice girl Tessa meeting the family, immediately getting into the mother-in-law’s bad books (for no discernible reason, other than that they are women and hence must be rivals), drama drama drama, and the most virtuous woman wins. This type of book usually frustrates me because it absolves the author’s responsibility for developing their characters. One woman is good and the other is evil and bitchy, what’s so hard to understand? And of course, the goal is the undivided affection of a handsome, young man.
Discussing the sexist implications of this will require another article. The author makes a start at creating motives and histories for her characters, but although there is some expectation to uncover a motive that will help the reader sympathise with Datin Shankar, nothing is revealed. All the reader can discern is that her intense hatred for Tessa seems to come from thinly veiled racism and classism, and even that doesn’t come to a head. It starts and ends with her simply being a bitch. In comparison, do Tessa Goh or Aran Shankar have crippling character flaws? Of course they don’t.
Additionally, no reader will fail to overlook the plot’s similarities to Crazy Rich Asians (here we refer to the film), from which many plot points seem to take inspiration. Perhaps a little too many to still be classified as ‘inspiration’. Both boast a thrilling girlfriend vs. mother-in-law conflict, complete with a private investigator, the boyfriend’s British-ness, the shock of the protagonists’ peers when they hear who she’s dating, her innocent confusion, and finally the mother’s speech about how the protagonist may call her ideals ‘old-fashioned’ (nearly word for word).
What makes this problematic is that if the author really was inspired by Crazy Rich Asians, then she has completely missed the point. The genius of Crazy Rich Asians was taking a plotline we are all too familiar with, girlfriend vs. mother-in-law, and using it to shed light on Asian traditional values, the women who must sacrifice themselves to uphold them, and its generational and cultural clashes. This is all done sympathetically and artfully. To then take away from this only the juicy parts, only the thrilling cat-fight element, is unforgiving to the characters, particularly to Datin Shankar, whose attitude by the end of the book drives her son away. Ms. Chan also throws in a mixed-race element – Tessa is Malaysian-Chinese while Aran is Malaysian-Indian – but the ramifications of this is barely explored beyond adding slightly to the Datin’s pettiness.
Voice in My Head doesn’t conclude itself very strongly. Tessa, besides being forced to take a temporary break from Aran, doesn’t really seem to learn or develop. She kind of just… wins (my biggest quip with storylines like this). What’s most regrettable is the massive, unrealised potential Ms. Lilian Chan had with a story like this. The mind-reading would have added another layer to this story, yet the plot remains rigidly one-dimensional. However, Tessa isn’t doomed to live the dull, happy ending so many other novel characters like her have landed in. While this book wasn’t particularly enjoyable for me, I would still be interested should Lilian Chan choose to continue with this story, and think up possible futures for mind-reading Tessa Goh and her new family.
Written by Natasha Nor Azmi