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Book Review

Easy to Swallow, Hard to Digest

By Constance Goh

The Sound of SCH

Title: The Sound of SCH: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey
By Danielle Lim
Published by Ethos Books
Price: $18.60
No. of Pages: 180
Available at EthosBooks.com.sg and Kinokuniya

The Sound of SCH: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey is far from a mindless tale, but a honest retelling of a story about stigmatisation of the mentally ill, fear, guilt and above all, sacrificial love. It paints a beautiful but heartbreaking picture of the unpleasant effects of schizophrenia on a family.

Documenting a 30-year journey of the author’s own mother, Chu, it highlights her struggle to keep a promise, one that she made on a whim. Even as Chu moves out to start her own family, she agrees not to abandon her schizophrenic brother, Seng, and ailing mother. The promise haunts her for a lifetime as she fights to keep a balance between keeping her word and taking care of her own family.

This poignant novel is Danielle Lim’s first work, which won the Singapore Literature Prize 2016 (Non-Fiction). For someone who holds a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Arts degree from The University of Oxford, there is a stark contrast between her modest writing and the intense emotions and struggles her characters face.

Something unexpected and fascinating about this compelling story is the fact that it tackles the serious issue of schizophrenia in a childlike manner. It pulls you in with the storytelling done by the simple-minded and innocent Lin, who is a fictional version of the author herself. The way Lin views the world and all that is around her is a refreshing way to tell a tough story.

Danielle Lim places herself in the shoes of her young character and illustrates her uncle’s condition in a simple and candid manner. In the book, Lin often talks to herself. Her random musings peel off the complicated layers of the personalities of other characters one by one to reveal their real struggles and fears.

The story unfolds as Lin grows up and gradually realises the real impact of schizophrenia on the individual and on her family members. When she realises that the reason why her mother, Chu, has a phone right above her bed is to take calls in the night when Seng relapses, it emphasises the stress and heavy burden that Chu has to shoulder while caring for Seng.

The tough predicament faced by schizophrenic Seng and his struggles living in a society that treats him differently come off very strongly. The novel presents the uncomfortable truth that society might not be ready to accept. It drives home the point that society continues to stigmatise a schizophrenic individual as one who is violent, and to be feared and avoided. The vivid description of society’s distaste is told through the naïveté of a young girl, making it especially striking.

Co-workers and neighbours would call Seng names like “xiao lang” (Hokkien for mad man) or whisper and point when he relapses. Unable to defend himself, Seng can only walk away from the situation. Lin’s only response is the innate desire to assure them that there is no need to be afraid, as her uncle will never harm them. This book helps the reader to see society as it is – unfiltered and frank – and is a sobering reminder of how society can change to be more accepting.

I appreciate that The Sound of SCH is not just a retelling of a story but also subtly forces the reader to consider the meaning of life. An example is Seng, who used to be a top student but was stricken by schizophrenia and held back by his mother to receive professional treatment. Instead of achieving his full potential, he eventually ends up working as a sweeper. Through searching for the meaning of Seng’s life, it explores something deeper for the reader to take away and clearly distinguishes itself from a mindless tale.

The slim novel is easy to swallow but hard to digest. It is easy to read, but the message behind the author’s experiences will keep you thinking. It is a must-read for a soul who cares, a soul who gives and a soul who loves.

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