Review: The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Ovidia Yu)

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Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Constable
Publication date: June 1st, 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Pansing Malaysia
Page Count: 320

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First in a delightfully charming crime series set in 1930s Singapore, introducing amateur sleuth SuLin, a local girl stepping in as governess for the Acting Governor of Singapore.

1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin’s daughter dies suddenly – and in mysterious circumstances – mission school-educated local girl SuLin – an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage – is invited to take her place.

But then another murder at the residence occurs and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all SuLin’s traditional skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy solve the murders – and escape with her own life.

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I was pretty excited when I received The Frangipani Tree Mystery for review. I’m always on the lookout for diverse reads by diverse authors, and a crime-cum-historical fiction written by a Singaporean Chinese sounds amazing.

Throw in the fact that this was set in 1930’s Malaya/Singapore before the Japanese occupation in 1940’s, and I was hooked. The premise for this book is so interesting and unique that after reading this book, I feel like every South East Asian should read this book. Because finally we have a book that we can relate with in a historical sense!

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The Frangipani Tree Mystery is about SuLin, a Chinese Singaporean who took on the role as a nanny for the British acting governor’s daughter after the previous nanny died from a balcony fall. This book is a crime fiction as we see SuLin try to solve the murder of the nanny, alongside an additional murder that occurs afterwards.

Not only do we have a diverse main character in this book, we also have a main character that is disabled. SuLin suffers from polio and limps while she walks. But this adversity doesn’t hinder her from solving the murders at Frangipani Hill as she’s very smart and quick on her tongue. From simple beginnings as the granddaughter of a famous along to carving her own path away from traditional cultures, SuLin is a wonderful character to witness her development in this book. Her wit and resilience was wonderful to read, and I just love strong female characters.

She also takes care of Dee Dee, a 17-year-old girl who suffered irreversible brain injury. As a result, Dee Dee acts like a 7-year-old, the age she suffered the injuries, with no indication of growing in mental maturity. The struggles to care for a special-needs kid are highlighted in this book, and it was done so well in my opinion.

I honestly wished we had books like this during my primary and secondary school years. It would have been so much fun to learn about Malaya this way, because all the characters written in this book are exactly how we were taught back in school. You have the 2 main races of Malaya: Malay, Chinese and Indian. All three living harmoniously until the British came to colonize us. There was this one particular scene where a British male character was seen asking SuLin whether she trusted the Malay gardener and Indian cook. And SuLin replied that only the ang mohs (white people) wanted the locals to believe that each race was dishonest and non-trustworthy.

Let me tell you something, seeing the terrible racist things that are happening now, SuLin’s words ring truer than ever.

The accuracy in which the characters are written during that period is impeccable. I felt so much nostalgia for each South East Asian character that probably were reflective of every person my grandparents knew when they were living in Singapore in that period. You have each character that brought about a sense of belonging to how life was back then. It was representative of how simple things were back then. From the way they cooked their food, to the way they talked, and to the traditions of the Chinese and Malays highlighted in this book. Everything about The Frangipani Tree Mystery is authentic.

I must bring into light the wonder of this book for using Hokkien and Malay languages! I was so shocked to find a Malay poem inserted within the first few chapters that I squealed in delight. Small details like the type of language used and anecdotes infused in the book are what gives the book an authentic vibe.

You have SuLin preparing nasi lemak and fish curry in the book. You have an Indian cook preparing crispy , fried ikan bilis. You have the superstitions surrounding frangipani trees, or kemboja in Malay, and how they’re bad luck because they’re technically “grave flowers”.

You even have the legendary Biskut Ais Jems making an appearance in the book!

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I mean, if you never ever had these as a kid, growing up in Malaysia or Singapore, what kind of childhood did you even have???

The endless Malaya traditions included in this book are what I enjoyed the most. I’ve never read a novel that could portray and embody so well all the traditions and cultures I’ve experienced growing up.

Asides from these brilliant flashbacks, I found the plot to be alright. Nothing special that gripped my attention hard, but the adventures of SuLin and Dee Dee were enough to keep me reading until the end. The plot was a bit slow somewhere in the middle before picking up and ending a bit abruptly. But otherwise, it was a pleasure to travel to 1930’s Singapore and get inside the head of a local nanny.

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Overall, I really enjoyed this wonderful gem of a book. It is unique and needs to get out in the book industry more. The diversity and rich history portrayed in the book are what make The Frangipani Tree Mystery a brilliant read. The fact that it’s a fusion of crime and historical fiction adds brownie points to the package!

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Thank you Pansing Malaysia for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!


4 thoughts on “Review: The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Ovidia Yu)

    • BookLoves_ Reviews says:

      Yes I will! Because the ending of the first book seems so exciting. But I’m not sure when the sequel will be out


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