By Azzahra Osman (22S03P) and Ting Kaily (22S03P)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
Rating: 1.5/5 stars
Prostitution is taboo in Singapore; many of us do not know much about this topic and tend to shy away from it, due to the social stigma associated with it. But did you know that it has existed here for nearly two centuries?
In The Secrets of the Sakura Girls, Aoki is a karayuki-san (Japanese prostitute) working along Malay Street in Singapore in 1870.
Reverend Harry Gilmore is a clergyman who has just relocated to Singapore with his nine-year-old son Rupert. When Aoki and Harry’s lives collide in an unexpected encounter, they are suddenly unable to rid their thoughts of each other but the mysterious murder of one of Aoki’s Chinese customers sets to ruin their blossoming relationship. At the same time, detective superintendent Karupan is on a mission to solve the crime as soon as possible, lest the residents find out about it and a religious riot breaks out. Would he be able to successfully prevent a clash between the various religious groups in Singapore? And what would become of Aoki and Harry’s relationship?
The story unfolds through the perspectives of the three main protagonists: Aoki, Harry, and Karupan. While we appreciated how the author Callan attempted to provide multiple viewpoints instead of just one, we were unable to fully comprehend everything that was going on and the message he wanted to convey through each of their storylines.
To say the least, this book lacks depth and development, and we were sorely disappointed by the fact that it didn’t live up to the expectations we had after reading the synopsis of the book.
Let’s start with the basics.
This is not the kind of book that keeps you engrossed for hours straight and leaves you wanting for more despite the many plot holes and unanswered questions throughout the book that were never addressed. It lacks the punch needed for one to be fully immersed in its story, with barely any rising action present at all throughout the book.
To make matters worse, it does not help that the author uses overly mundane language to complement a story that already falls flat of its appeal. Even the author’s descriptive phrases fail to give readers a vivid image of what/ who he is describing, thereby making it even harder for readers to be completely engaged with the story.
The repetition of the same expressions throughout the book, albeit minor among the variety of flaws we picked out from it, is frankly very exasperating to read. For example, Reverend Harry Gilmore says the same phrase in response to anything he finds remotely surprising: “Good God!”.
Character development is also unsatisfactory (to put it mildly) and we finished the book with superficial understanding of each character’s storyline. In fact, for many of the characters, no closure of any sort was given to them even at the end of the book, leaving us to question their fates. Was Callan’s intention really to leave us hanging on the destinies of the characters in the book? It was frustrating to have to come up with our own interpretations of what could have been.
A particular case in point would be superintendent Karupan. We were interested to know more about him as he seemed to be a virtuous man, evident by his firm determination to bring Madam Usa down (the okasan (madam) of the brothel Aoki was working in) and restore justice in society. However, as with the other characters in the book, his character was under-developed.
We had expected a thorough breakdown of how Karupan solved the mystery murder in the book, but not only did he leave most of the investigation to his subordinate detective Tan, the case was ultimately added to the “file of unsolved cases”. It was anticlimactic and disappointing. After devoting much of the story to uncovering the mystery behind the murder, we readers were left hoping for some sort of resolution to it.
In contrast to Reverend Harry Gilmore’s side of the story, both Aoki and Karupan’s points of view were intertwined and linked by a common denominator, which was the murder of one of Aoki’s customers. While Harry interacted with Karupan several times throughout the story, he had no relation at all to the murder. The book would have sufficed without the presence of Harry in it as his storyline was boring and added minimal value to it.
Throughout the course of the story, we also could not help but question Reverend Harry Gilmore’s character. For example, he was visibly disappointed when he found out that he would no longer be able to enjoy the service of free labour provided by tickets-of-leave convicts in future.
There were times where he could not help but succumb to his sexual desires of Aoki in front of a bible too, committing one of the seven deadly sins according to Christian theology. For someone with such a skewed moral compass, we were certainly very baffled at how he was deserving of his title as Reverend in the first place.
Troubled by the loss of his wife, Margaret, Harry also took on harsh parenting techniques to raise Rupert, many of which were frowned upon. Coupled with the fact that he turned out not to be the righteous man we expected him to be, he was easily the most unlikeable character in the book. Even so, his negative traits did not seem to have any effect on the story whatsoever, which again leads us back to the point that rising action was missing for much of it.
Moreover, just by reading the synopsis at the back of the book alone, you may think that Aoki and Harry’s relationship would blossom into one of passion, longing and intensity as the story progresses. While this might be partially true given how a quarter into the book, we were already surfeited with the repetitive descriptions of their desires to have chance encounters with each other, their bond remains one of the most underdeveloped ones we’ve read about.
One kiss on the cheek, countless thoughts about each other, a few other encounters riddled with language barriers and that was it. This is basically their relationship summed up in one sentence. It felt as if we were reading a diary entry of a secondary school student writing about their crush instead of what the given synopsis left us expecting.
So, if you’re a sucker for romance novels, this novel unfortunately may not be what you are looking for.
In fact, it felt as if we were reading a lower secondary history textbook with a few factual inaccuracies here and there. For instance, Rupert (Reverend Harry’s son) had to be sent to an orphanage to be “educated” as there were apparently no schools in Singapore back in 1870. However, this is already a glaring falsehood given that Raffles Institution (the very school we are studying in!) was founded more than 50 years before this story took place.
In short, this novel has not been a particularly pleasant read and if we were to use one word to encapsulate our sentiments towards this book, it would be ‘disappointing’ (and even that per se is an euphemism for how we really feel towards the story!). So, for those of you looking for local historical fiction, we would recommend that you find some other books that are more deserving of your time.