The Inlet by Claire Tham

The Inlet Cover

On the recommendation of two friends, I picked up* The Inlet by Claire Tham. Tham has had an illustrious career in Singapore, but she and her work are new to me. She is best-known for “her social critiques and biting observations of human nature“; The Inlet was my introduction to Tham.

In 2010, Li Hong Yan, a young woman from China, was found dead in a swimming pool in Sentosa Cove, a secluded development on the edge of a small island off Singapore’s coast and a playground for the rich and famous. The house was owned to Adrian Chua Boon Chye, a wealthy real estate developer. Li’s death was eventually ruled an accident and Chua faced no charges. The Inlet is loosely based on these real-life events.

In short: The Inlet was a very satisfying read. The writing was exquisite, and Tham really does have a gift for character development.

Longer: But Tham makes some curious craft choices, some successful, others less so.

With regards to setting, Tham creates fictional names for real places (“The Inlet”); uses terms that possibly refer to more than one real place (“Ivy League university,” “HDB estate”); and names real places (Hwa Chong Institution, Tham’s alma mater, is mentioned as such, but the school which one of the protagonists attends is cheekily referred to as the “school for male tai-tais”). This push and pull—and inconsistency—make the reader wonder whether the author intentionally made these choices (and why), or whether the book suffered from shoddy editing. Nitpicking? I think not, especially given the novel’s title and the importance of place and nation in this work.

The novel is written in the third person omniscient and each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. The Inlet promises to “[explore] the social and cultural changes that have washed over Singapore society in recent years,” but many of its points of view are of the ultra-rich and the somewhat-rich. Tham chooses to erase, for example, the real-life story of Aye Aye Tun, the Burmese domestic worker who discovered Li Hong Yan’s body, and includes very few insights from characters less powerful.

Still, the novel so perfectly captures a moment in time, of cash flooding a market in the wake of a global financial crisis, at the cusp of a momentous general election. (Has this moment passed? Reuters recently reported that “times have changed.”) I look forward to reading her earlier works.

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* I borrowed Tham’s book from the re-opened Library@Orchard, which was crowded and noisy and, unsurprisingly, mall-like, given its location. It’s well-designed, no doubt; it features sleek, curvilinear white shelves, bamboo floors, and black walnut chairs with leather seats that retail for more than SG$1,600 each (what a waste). But it has a very sparse collection, for the sake of design, I suspect, and nowhere to settle down and read or work. I will not be back.