Water Bodies in "Island of Silence" - Book Review

by Teo Xiao Ting


The women in Island of Silence haunts long after I put them down. A surging impulse that refuses to still, contorting until it becomes a tender fist. Characters, like islands, contain impossible velocity in their being, as though constantly pacing from shore to shore, desperate to escape isolation. Originally written in Mandarin, Island of Silence is translated into English by Jeremy Tiang. Even this act of translation folds into my experience of encountering its world—the fact that this text is transmitted to me via translation creates a gap I ache to close.

May I?

I traverse across three islands—Hong Kong, Bali, and Singapore—through the mind of Chen-mian, the twin-main characters of the book. Geographically, Singapore is an island. But it is one that constantly seeks to negate its identity as an island, filling and fiddling about its edges. Our land area has increased by 130km2 over the years through an incessant process of land reclamation. This refusal to be less translates to an undercurrent of existential anxiety—it is, we are—never enough. But what is “it”, who are “we”? Island of Silence holds my hand through the dizzying twines of Chen-mian and her alter ego, also named Chen-mian. I suspend all doubt, and take the oscillation between the "real" Chen-mian and the "other" Chen-mian as a given, natural. 

The two women’s lives and psyches collide, bodies and sentiments melding into each other until the two are indistinguishable. The “real” Chen-mian is a perfume distributor whose family has since disintegrated while the “other” Chen-mian is the stage manager for a theatre company, and family intact, whole. What crumbles in reality solidifies in her imagination, lovers reincarnating into other lovers bearing the same name, the same face. She gives herself another chance with each iteration of an encounter. Chen-mian, in her pursuit of sensation and desire, has internalised a velocity that keeps her out of reach of anyone who loves her. I yield, and find myself chasing after her as she tries to escape her own volatility. 

Do you want this life of yours?

In Island, the body is a conduit for solace, contact. Skin of water, lonely, waiting to be broken. The bodies in Island take on a life of their own, struggling to return to itself. It brings to mind Audre Lorde’s words, where she wrote that the “erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” The bodies are trying to regain feeling of themselves again, and Island gently brings to my attention what moves my feet, my heart, my hands. A renewed sense of eroticism that demands a different reading, devoid of its lewd associations. Lorde's definition of eroticism. 

Island is an invitation, a plea, to listen if not yield, to a body fluid. My body. A reclamation of land, of self, that does not require a fiddling of edges. I gladly flow alongside as it shifts between Chen-mian and her shadow selves.

"For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” 


Come away with me.