LitStack Review: ‘Aunty Lee’s Delights’ by Ovidia Yu

Aunty Lee’s DelightsAunty Lees Delights
Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
Release Date:  September 17, 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-222715-7

Aunty Lee’s Delights is a modern day murder mystery novel set in the bustling metropolis of Singapore.  In a novel twist, however, its main investigator is not a hardnosed policeman nor a svelte government agent.  The leading sleuth in this charming and unpretentious mystery is none other than Aunty Lee, a rich widow of “certain age and even more certain girth” who has decided not to retreat in her waning years, but to build a quaint yet decidedly unique local culinary presence through not only her small cafe, Aunty Lee’s Delights, but also from the sale of jars of her fresh, spicy achar (pickled relish) and sambals (chili based sauces and relish).  She also embodies to the extreme the typical Singaporean characteristic of kiasu (“fear of losing out”), which meshes well with her “unerring ability to pinpoint when something was ‘off,’ in food or in life.”

In other words, Aunty Lee is somewhat of a busybody.  A busybody who can finagle her way into almost any situation through her culinary skills and her disarming chatter.  She also is amazingly astute, gathering information from paying attention to the small details as well as stepping back to see the big picture.  This goes for potential matchmaking – and murder investigations.

“Everybody has secrets,” Aunty Lee said.  “That poor girl Komal, for instance.  She is so scared of her employers, she is scared of the police.  Even if she has done nothing worse than eating leftovers, she is scared.  But I can talk to her.  Everybody hides something, so they seem suspicious.  But some of those things are going to be innocent stupid things like women trying to lose weight but eating peach cake secretly.  So we have to rule out the innocent secrets, and when we have done that, we will know who is responsible for these terrible crimes!”

It sounded very simple.  Salim felt he ought to warn her that this was not how things were done in Singapore, but when he tried –

“Nonsense,” she exclaimed.  “This is how problems are solved all over the world!”

Aunty Lee is indeed an interesting character.  The well-to-do second wife of a (now deceased) wealthy Singapore businessman, with whom she had a very loving relationship, Aunty Lee is one of those women who always seems to get her way, whether it be through determination, gentle manipulation, or the occasional brow beating that is allowed due to age and station.  It also helps that she is beholden to no one except herself and her memories, and that she has a good heart and a seemingly indefatigable desire to adhere to painstakingly perfect results – in her kitchen and elsewhere in her life.

When an unidentified body turns up on the beach outside a popular tourist spot nearby, Aunty Lee’s inquisitive tendencies snap on.  What at first seems like idle gossip and social snooping turns into intrigue, however, when one of the expected guests at a dinner party (hosted by Aunty Lee for the benefit of her easy going stepson, Mark, and his overbearing wife, Selina) fails to show without notice.  A mysterious, overwrought stranger, curious coincidences and a second body ratchet up the suspense.  As the murder investigation – both official and unofficial – broadens, the mystery deepens, but no one seems to be ready for the threat that is lurking just under the surface of everyday life of both citizen and tourist alike.  No one, that is, except for Aunty Lee.

The cultural writing and culinary linkage is superb.  Having never been to Singapore, I still felt like I was sitting in a quaint, street-side cafe in a bustling Asian metropolis, full of types that would honestly frequent such places for such reasons.  The writing is intimate enough to enjoy the personalities yet broad enough to allow for an appreciation of the unique urban perspective akin to but so different from my own.  Aunty Lee, her assistant Nina, and Senior Staff Sergeant Salim all come to life with a light touch and a deft sense of humor, stereotypes notwithstanding.  And indeed, the culinary references make the narrative sing.

There are times when things need to be done fast.  When you are making deep-fried potato curry puffs, for example.  You may take your time making your filling – indeed, you have to allow it time to cool before you fold it into its pastry.  But once the savory mix of chicken and potato is tucked and folded into its pastry pocket, you have to move quick-quick-quick!  The precious pale pastry packages cannot stay in the hot oil a moment longer than it takes to puff them up into all their golden-brown glory.  And then again there is no time to waste, because if they are not eaten immediately, the moment of perfection will pass and all you will be left with is a good curry puff.  Of course this is not the end of the world.  Think of it as falling in love with the most beautiful girl you have ever seen…but you cannot have her and you end up with her sister.  You would have been happy with your wife if you had not fallen in love with her sister first, but now you will never forget.  It is the same thing with curry puffs.  Once you have tasted one of Aunty Lee’s deep-fried chicken-potato curry puffs freshly fished out of hot oil, no other curry puff will ever satisfy you again.

Unfortunately, the murder mystery aspect  of Aunty Lee’s Delights is not nearly as strong as the cultural and culinary writing, or as entertaining as the depiction of the central character herself.  The pacing of the plot is uneven and the first half of the book seems to be going around in circles without moving the action forward enough to keep interest from flagging.  There is far too much environmental exposition, even if clues and hints about the crime are being dropped along the way (sometimes like lead balloons).  The investigation itself is rustic and simplistic; perhaps this is to add to the “charm” of life in Singapore – and indeed it is charming – but there is little suspense built and our curiosity is not truly piqued.  Many characters are introduced with heavy handed implication as to their involvement, but there are no enticing linkages other than innuendo, and too many of the players stick too closely to comfortable stereotypes.

By all means, read Aunty Lee’s Delights for a quirky take on the often repetitive murder mystery story, but come to its table looking for delightful curry puffs and other flavorful bits rather than an elegant and satiating multi-course meal.  Long on spicy seasonings but lacking in depth and fullness, you’ll enjoy bits and pieces of this book, but it will inevitably leave you hungry for something more substantial and satisfying for your next literary meal.

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