Review: The Impractical Uses Of Cake, 2019’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize Winner
Impractical Uses Of Cake is the debut novel of Ms Jo-Ann Yeoh, SPH editor turned marketing guru turned novelist. It is also the winner of the 2019 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, a prestigious literary award whose previous winners include Sebastian Sim (The Riot Act) and Noraliah Norasid (The Gatekeeper).
The prize also comes with a $25,000 cheque—or approximately 600 cakes. Enough cakes to make Health Promotion Board weep rivers of cheap mascara. More cakes than anyone could reasonably consume in one lifetime.
During the day, he spends his time hiding from students and colleagues behind a copy of Dune. On the weekends, he visits his parents and dodges uncomfortable questions about matrimony.
His parents want grandchildren. He just wants to escape into a collection of Philip Larkin’s poetry. He wins, but at what cost? Sukhin has no social life to speak of except Dennis, a flamboyantly gay colleague who teaches mathematics, and Mrs Chan, a canteen auntie who makes his teh si gao kosong with unrequited affection.
Beyond them, his most intimate relationships are with books and baked goods. He exercises with great reluctance, drives a car which he regrets buying, and spends his life as a gainfully-employed hermit.
He is not happy, but not unhappy either. That is, until one fine day, the past resurfaces—in the form of his ex-girlfriend Jinn. He has not heard from her since forever and is shocked to discover that his old flame is now a homeless vagrant.
Once an affluent Bukit-Timah girl destined for the Tai-Tai life, Jinn now lives amongst cockroaches, in a cardboard house of her own design.
Sukhin—feeling sorry—brings her a slice of cake, and thus begins The Journey. It’s not exactly Casablanca and no one falls madly in love, but still—they’ll always have Pandan.
The narcissism. The pathetic self-loathing. The unearned sense of superiority. The ‘anything also can’ approach to life. Everything is perfectly and painfully on point. At work, Sukhin looks ‘grim and tired’ despite doing the bare minimum. He loathes his colleagues’ lunchtime ‘whingeing’ but spends most of his own head-space whingeing about idiotic colleagues. He rebuffs their attempts at kindness but wallows in self-pity for having to suffer the ‘stupid boundless energy’ of his students.
He loathes Ken—a PE teacher—for suggesting that unfit people are less productive but quietly starts jogging in the mornings.
By now, you probably think Sukhin a total, irredeemable arse. Au contraire. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Ms Yeoh’s true skill lies in making Sukhin lovable in spite of his many flaws. He may be neurotic and self-pitying, but who wouldn’t be if trapped in the same predicament?
Under the heel of a Mussolini-like principal called ‘The Tay’ and beset by needy students who didn’t do their homework, Sukhin cuts a sympathetic figure when struggles through yet another interminable staff meeting about lesson plans. It is, of course, utterly indistinguishable from last year’s interminable staff meeting on lesson plans.
Thoughts and prayers. Je Suis Sukhin. Ich Bin Ein Mr Dhillon.
The world he inhabits—a universe of office birthday parties and pointless committees—is no less a box than Jinn’s makeshift cardboard abode. It is so fully realised thanks to Ms Yeoh’s wit and sardonic eye that you can’t help but cheer when he finally breaks free.
With Jinn’s help, of course.
I agree about the humour, but not the second bit. In fact, my main criticism of this book is the lack of an equally fascinating female deuteragonist. Jinn might be smart, feckless, and every bit Sukhin’s equal, but sadly, she is not as well-drawn a character as ‘the diligent, dapper Mr Dhillon’.
The problem lies in the first-person narration. We see things from Sukhin’s point-of-view, but there isn’t enough dialogue or interaction between our two leads to make Jinn a Cathy to Sukhin’s Heathcliff. We spend too much time with him, at her expense. As a result, she remains a pencil sketch beside the sculpture of Sukhin.
We know that Jinn enjoys cake, Umberto Eco, and a good cry. We don’t know how she really feels about seeing Sukhin after so many years, or about her own precarious existence under a bridge.
Likewise, the conclusion to Jinn’s story/arc is nowhere as satisfying. Impractical spends its entire length setting up Jinn’s vagabond existence as The Great Mystery, but at the end, it is resolved inexplicably with an anticlimax. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say, my first reaction was a ‘Huh? That’s it?’. After the sucker punch, I flipped back and forth to check if I’ve missed any crucial plot details.
Apparently not, to my disappointment.
The tangy tartness of Ms Yeoh’s social satire gives way to something sweeter and more romantic as our protagonists bond over cake, literature, and oh-so-embarrassing memories of youthful infatuation.
However, just like any good pastry, it never becomes saccharine in its sentimentality. There is no three-tiered fondant monstrosity at the end, only the comfort of a good home-made chiffon—which is enough.
Hence, I had no problem devouring the entire confection in two days. There are a few lumpy bits here and there, but overall, Impractical Uses Of Cake is both satisfying and refreshing. Even if you don’t enjoy local literature or cake, you will be licking the icing off your fingers.