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Updated: December 10, 2012 18:42 IST

House on Neo Tiew Crescent

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Ten-year-old Lizhi has come to Singapore. Her encounter with her aunt introduces her to another way of life.

Your first impression of Singapore is all the glitz and glamour, the neatly manicured lawns, the perfect roads and of course the amazingly clean and green of the city. But Ovidia Yu in her book The Mudskipper, takes you to a part of Singapore that no traveller would have ever seen. The house Lizhi is going to stay in is old and far away from the glittering Singapore. It is by the beach and during low tide the boat that has been anchored there rests on the shore.

Home coming

The story begins with ten-year-old Lizhi and her mother arriving in Singapore.

Lizhi’s father was a Singapore Chinese and he has told her so many stories about his homeland. Lizhi is excited about visiting Singapore but she is also nervous because she would have to stay with her aunt Mona for five whole days without her mother as she has to go to China on business.

Lizhi is shocked to find that her aunt Mona does not like her. But more shocking is the house itself.

Packed tight with furniture, every room is crowded and unused. Even the bedroom allotted to Lizhi is like that.

Lizhi’s father had told her so much about Singapore food and Lizhi had been so eager to taste all the wonderful dishes her father had spoken about.

But she is surprised to find that in aunt Mona’s house, she only gets instant noodles — at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Another strange thing about aunt Mona is that she never throws away anything, not even a tiny scrap of paper. Everything is kept safe as she feels it may come in use sometime. And as Lizhi finds out, this very habit of aunt Mona’s proves to be her downfall.

Soon, Lizhi gets sucked into the mystery of the house. Who is the old man who stands at the gate and watches the house? Why is the house filled with so much of furniture? Why does aunt Mona treat her Indonesian maid Bwe Bwe so badly? Who is the owner of the beautiful carved mudskipper? And why does it lie forgotten in a bedroom that no one uses? Endless questions that seem to have no answers.

One day, when Lizhi is locked up in a room by her aunt she jumps out of the window and begins to explore her surroundings. She soon finds the old man and makes friends with him. She finds that he is so easy to talk to and is good company too. In fact, it is the old man who takes her to a small stall which serves authentic Singapore food and gives her her first taste of the delicious dishes her father had described. Lizhi manages to unlock the secrets on the morning her mother returns from China, after a great adventure in the mangroves. This is a remarkable story about a little girl who travels to see her father’s home. How she gets to know her grandfather and learns to love him is heart warming.

There are moment of suspense and anxiety in confrontations with aunt Mona.

In the telling of the tale the author introduces the reader to colour prejudice, treatment meted out to older people and also how home help is treated badly by some.

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