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Yang-May Ooi

Yang-May Ooi
Hodder & Stoughton
London 2000

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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 Values Alliance.

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, reassuring.”

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


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