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• Friday, May 29th, 2020

Catherine Lim was born in Kulim, Malaya in 1942, the eighth of fourteen siblings. She studied in the Convent Of The Holy Infant Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious institute dedicated to education and training of underprivileged schoolchildren. She also studied in neighbouring Bukit Mertajam followed by Penang Free School for her pre-university education.

Lim received a BA degree in Arts in 1963 from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. Four years later, aged twenty-five, she moved to Singapore where she still lives. In 1988 Lim obtained a PhD in applied linguistics from the National University Of Singapore. She has worked as a teacher, a project director and as a specialist lecturing in sociolinguistics and literature.

Lim has received several awards and honours and has written a collection of short stories, poems, novels, fiction, an e-novella and a play. Her work has been translated into various languages.

The Bondmaid was first published in her adopted country in 1995 where it became a best-seller and an English version was released in 1997. Since 1992 Lim has dedicated herself to full-time writing.

The story of The Bondmaid takes place in Singapore in the nineteen fifties. The reader follows the protagonist, Han, from her early childhood as a four-year-old. Her impoverished pregnant mother, who is addicted to gambling and at the same time burdened by having to take care of her numerous children single-handed, sells her to the wealthy House of Wu, who take her into their service as a slave.

Han grows up in the House of Wu and becomes a beautiful young girl, madly in love with the young master and heir of the House of Wu. During their childhood, Han and the young master – who is one year older than her – become best playmates.

This tender affection that bonds Han to the young master Wu in their infancy, later turns into an impossible love when they both reach their teens. The author emphasises the conflict between the ingrained tyrannical traditions of old established, wealthy Chinese families which forbids any love, passion or bond between one of theirs with a lower cast. A powerful family weds into an equally affluent one, has always been their rule.

Consequently, Young master Wu, following the family practice, marries the jealous Li-Li from the prosperous House of Chang, despite his attachment to Han. Nevertheless, the proud, strong-minded Han never submits to her fate nor her impossible love. She becomes Wu’s mistress, continues to meet with him regularly once a month, near the pond in the family’s property. Han and Li-Li are pregnant by Wu at the same time. Han’s baby son is stolen upon birth by her enemy, the maid Choyin, to be given to Li-Li in exchange for her newly born daughter who is handed down to the delirious Han as her baby.

Upon giving birth to young Wu’s son, Han, in her delirium, tries to rescue the goddess who answered her prayers from the bottom of the pond, but as a result, drowns like her. Following her death, Han turns into a vengeful, unforgiving goddess. She becomes a ghost, casting terrible, powerful curses on the House of Wu as well as on the House of Chang.

In this tragic tale, the reality is unfortunately often interspersed by Han’s dreams and hallucinations during her lifetime, without any warning from the author, creating some confusion and disruption to the flow of the main story. It becomes clear, although unnecessary, that it is meant to prepare the reader for the ascent of Han from an ordinary mortal human to an immortal goddess, after her demise.

The novel is divided into three sections: Child, Woman and Goddess. The three periods of the protagonist Han’s short life – she was nineteen-years-old when she died and became an accomplished goddess able to satisfy her revenge and produce miracles.

The Bondmaid is a touching story depicting the sad conditions of slave-maids taken advantage of by making them work hard as well as sexually abusing them. The author demonstrates her sufficient cultural knowledge of wealthy Chinese families living in Singapore in the fifties.

The heartbreaking tale of the Chinese slave-maid, Han, illustrates the struggle and determination of a young girl combating until her death the cruel ongoing bygone social rules applied in the middle of the twentieth century by eminent Chinese Singaporean families.

Han wished to obtain the recognition of her legitimate love for the man who is unattainable to her because of his higher social status. Young Wu, grieving at Han’s untimely death, spends the rest of his existence in a little ramshackle hut that he built near the pond where the couple used to meet and where Han drowned. He becomes unaware of the passing years waiting for his lover to come to him so that they can be “united, not in water, and storm, but the splendour of fire”.

A make-believe tale in a world of ruling gods, goddesses, corrupt, perverted priests and shrines and people who have faith in them. Nevertheless, the story would have benefited from being shorter if the repetitions of some events were omitted. Everything considered, it is an intriguing read as well as a thought-provoker.

Category: Book Reviews
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