Yang-May Ooi’s second novel, Mindgame, recalls her first, The Flame Tree,
in some respects, not least in that it features a young female Asian
lawyer who is caught up in a sinister plot in Ooi’s native Malaysia.
In Mindgame, reactionary forces have developed a serum with which they
hope to control the thoughts and behaviour of the Malaysian population.
Through her work for an ostensibly benevolent medical foundation, Fei-Li
Qwong stumbles upon the foundation’s true purpose, thereby pitting herself
against a variety of adversaries – a former CIA man turned freelance spy,
the right-wing “Asian Values Alliance” and her clients at the Medical
foundation, Piers and Ginny Wyndham.
The dichotomy between the cultural and political values of the West and
traditional Asian values which Ooi dealt with in The Flame Tree resurfaces
in Mindgame, though in this instance the dichotomy has become more a part
of the plot than the crux of the whole book. At the heart of Mindgame lies
the idea of choice, and the difficulties and personal dramas associated
with the process of choosing.
Ooi uses a variety of metaphors to show how freedom of choice is central
to living – from the attempts at mind-control foisted on unknowing test
subjects by the Asian Values Alliance, to the difficulties of choosing how, and
more importantly whom to love.
The drama of Fei-Lis Qwong’s personal life unfolds as she is forced to
choose between her long-term partner, Sam Ryder, and the duplicitous Ginny
Wyndham whilst coping with the pressure of being covert about her sexual
preference for other women in a traditional Asian society. At the same
time, Fei is caught up in a larger political drama as both the Chinese and
American governments are implicated in the mind-control plans of the Asian
The reader moves through Mindgame as if walking in a hall of mirrors,
where no character or situation are ever what they seem; by the end of the
novel, the importance of free will to both politics and personal
relationships has been reaffirmed, but only after a striking series of
denouements and revelations have taught us to look more closely at what we
believe in, and at the people we want to love.
In choosing the thriller as her form for this exploration of the
complexity of choice, Ooi has set herself a tough challenge. In the main,
she has succeeded, thanks largely to a prose style which is by turns
flowing and lyrical – especially when writing about the Malay landscape –
and at others, economical and punchy:
“Sam turned and traced the receding sounds which seemed to thread through
the tunnels. They stopped suddenly. She stopped. Inched her way on.
Listening beyond her own breathing. Fei’s voice, distressed. Then Ginny’s,
Ooi is a practising solicitor, and the lawyer’s love of detail is
everywhere in her work. Sometimes this can become cloying – I found myself
wondering if I really needed to know about how to encrypt voice signals
through a mobile phone – and can slow down the novel’s narrative in places
where more drama would be welcome. But Mindgame evinces the rare ability
to combine an entertaining story with reflections on how and why we live –
and on that basis, should be widely read and enjoyed.
Reviewed by James Wood