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House of Koi by Lilian Li, #66 review

Publication date : 2 December 2019

House of Koi is about identity and learning that, sometimes, your future is waiting for you in your past.

The story follows Mila as she strives to reconcile the person she became in an effort to fit into her American international school with the young girl she was; the girl who spoke Mandarin and Malay with ease. Is it too late to embrace both parts of herself?

When Mila is sent to the top of the mountain to live with her grandmother for a year when her parents go away for business, she cannot avoid her native tongue, even if she does try. To make matters worse, Mila must now attend a local private school, and navigate a world she seems to barely understand.

Everyone keeps telling her that she should not forget her heritage, but this only takes her deeper inside herself. That is until she meets the “Fish Boy” from the bottom of the mountain. Together, they teach one another what the other is best at. However, every time Mila asks about the past, he refuses to answer. She resolves to find out what happened that caused her to be unable to look her grandmother squarely in the eye.

House of Koi is such a deeply flavoured Malaysian dish that you can eat and eat without having to stop from it being too heavy or too much spice.

Like my food reference? Hahaha, that is because there is SO MUCH FOOD in here. From childhood snacks like sugus and tam tam to roadside motorbike vendors (abang roti) to food courts and household food. Gosh, to be a Malaysia is to be a proud eater XD. Reading this book felt like taking a trip down to memory lane of when I was a teenager at age 14. It explores a person’s identity; growing up and discovering who you are. If you feel like you don’t belong in your world, you need this book. Mila and Sean are childhood friends who grew up in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. I love how the author worked with the two sides of Penang, the island and mainland. She explored the cultural differences and city/ country surrounding. The story is based in Bukit Mertajam, the mountainside where Mila grew up in her Popo’s(grandmother) bungalow home. She moved to Penang city with her parents when she was a kid. Now at 14, she returned to Bukit Mertajam to live with her Popo once more. She switched from a Private Internation School where the syllabus is American to a local school. Education is a very important aspect as it shapes a child’s attitude and path ahead. After mingling with her angmo (white people) peers, she develops a distaste for her own culture. Reverting to fantasise about moving to America with her friends who are privileged and entitled. Due to their influence, Mila adapted to their ways. After she was pulled out of her sheltered snowglobe by her parents, she opens her eyes to the true Malaysia. We follow her as she struggles to relearn how to be Malaysian and return to her roots, or rather- Home.

Here are some issues I need to address:

Mental Health


A casual note for people out there, the book touches on having Anxiety. Mila encounters moments of anxiety. I have anxiety, reading the scenes when Mila felt anxious was a tad overwhelming for me. Which is proof of the candid writing to envoke such feelings. I can’t stress how real this fictional book is!!

Character development


Mila can be a snob. She has lived a luxurious life where she does not have to work a day to earn her allowance or help out around the house. She is frankly quite ignorant to the Real World. Which makes her character even more interesting as this is the outcome from the pampering she received since she was a baby from her family. In lieu of this, her actions can be childish and disrespectful which may rub off annoyingly on readers. However, it is also because of her family’s dote that she is very sweet, when she wants to be that is XD. I gotta say, the author did a fantastic job with Mila. The physiology of character is well thought of. I am happy to announce that Lilian did not make Mila’s character development from A to Z. Mila did grow in maturity but she did not change 360 degrees like how most stories would go. That gave it an extra sense of realness. People don’t change overnight.

Language

The characters sometimes speak in Malay and Chinese. Their dialogues are in the Chinese pinyin, some of which are not accurate at all. And the translations in English is not correct at times. Which irritates me. I am a Chinese Malaysian thus I know enough of both languages to understand. I do like that she included different languages and Chinese dialects. It gives international readers a chance to learn some new words plus it is what makes Malaysia a multilingual country. 

Representation


Majority of the people in the book are Chinese. It lacks characters in other races. The Malays and Indians and others were mostly workers in food stalls or teachers, they were in the background, Lilian chose to give more focus to the Chinese culture in her book as she is Chinese hence writing about one’s own culture is easier. Messing up someone’s culture is a terrible way to debut. However, I do wish that there was more attention to other races in the book since this is a book based in Malaysia. Cikgu(teacher) and the classroom scenes were a reminiscing read for me since I attended government school and the teachers taught in Malay for most subjects. Nevertheless, I reallyyyyy enjoy the book. The book was Malaysian thanks to her used of local delicacies, slang, languages and her description of everyday life in Malaysia.

The Ending


LOVE IT! Lilian started the book by dedicating it to her late Popo (grandmother) and ended it with a heartwarming scene of Mila’s Popo soaking in the loving glow of family. I also love how everything is not wrapped up in a neat bow for the readers, it leaves them to wonder about those untied ribbons, it lets them imagine the endings of the characters. I revert to my 14-year-old self in the book. It felt like I was a teen going through those younglings’ troubles and playing schoolgirl again. At the end of the day, we all go back to our roots, to our tree, to our family.

Thank you to MPH Distributors for sending me an e-copy of House of Koi. This book is available at all good bookstores. You can also get it on their website – http://www.mphclicks.com.

By elysianbooksish

The Bookish Faerie who loves to read and write, and bake too

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