Review: Bitter Leaves

The delicate power balance between maids and their employers in Singapore is just one aspect of this layered, moving novel. Bitter Leaves is a celebration of the strength of human spirit and the bonds that can form between people regardless of their differences. At the same time it condemns the inequality existing in a society where capitalism and power are the driving forces, and many at the bottom of the pile are shuffled around like chess pieces without autonomy or basic rights.

Seen through the varied perspectives of two maids and two employers, this novel is like a multifaceted prism examining why the maids are in this position and how different employers interact with them, based on their cultural backgrounds and temperaments.

Madame Eunice is often despicable in her attitude towards and treatment of her maids, and indeed her friends. She sees herself as a ‘tiger’ – someone who is at the pinnacle of Singaporean society and entitled to exercise this power. Many aspects of her personality are conditioned by her Chinese heritage and the prevailing attitudes towards those lower down the social hierarchy.

By contrast, Lesley is uncomfortable being in charge or being in Singapore at all. Her low self-esteem renders her unable to fight back when her husband demeans her, and equally unable to assert herself when it comes to her calculating maid. Her story is a poignant aspect of Bitter Leaves, as is the heartbreaking plight of Shammi, pushed to physical and emotional extremes by her sadistic employer.

Supported and loved by Ebony Ma’am, Lucilla is more empowered — this positive story arc was a necessary buffer against the darker aspects of the book. The light and shade are adeptly and sensitively handled.

Bitter Leaves is a powerful story, shining a light on an issue still prevalent in Singapore. It is beautifully written, visceral and confronting as well as deeply human in its portrayal of foibles and strengths. At its heart is hope for renewal and the sense that what connects us is stronger than what divides. Highly recommended.

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