Sanet Oberholzer reviews 'Now You See Us'

In her latest novel, Balli Kaur Jaswal does a remarkable job of telling the real stories of some of the most vulnerable and exploited domestic workers

20 August 2023 - 00:00
By Sanet Oberholzer
Balli Kaur Jaswal novel 'Inheritance' won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014. Her second, 'Sugarbread', was a finalist for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Her third novel, 'Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows', was picked by Reese Witherspoon’s book club in 2018. 'Now You See Us' is her fifth offering.
Image: Suplied Balli Kaur Jaswal novel 'Inheritance' won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014. Her second, 'Sugarbread', was a finalist for the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Her third novel, 'Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows', was picked by Reese Witherspoon’s book club in 2018. 'Now You See Us' is her fifth offering.

Now You See Us 

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Harper Collins

5 stars

If you take the most marginalised in society — unseen, vulnerable, exploited — and write about their lived experiences with meaning and compassion to tell an impactful story and pose questions you ponder even after finishing the book, you have a recipe for success.

Balli Kaur Jaswal has done just that with Now You See Us, her fifth and latest novel about domestic workers who toil for Singapore’s elite: their daily struggles, friendships, romances and family members left behind. 

There’s Cora, who has fled from Manila and carries a great sadness. The nephew she raised as her own died recently — the mystery of how or why shrouding her return to Singapore where she worked as a domestic worker previously. 

It was during this time that she met Angel, a woman who cares for an elderly man who suffered a stroke after his wife died. She is fond of her employer and finds caring for others fulfilling, but finds herself the object of unwanted advances from his adolescent son who acts unashamedly and with entitlement. 

After Flordeliza, another domestic worker from the Philippines, is arrested and accused of murdering her ma’am, Cora and Angel find themselves in a group chat with Donita, a young domestic worker who recently moved to Singapore and claims Flor is innocent.

Having known Flor in the Philippines, Donita is intent on finding a way to help her friend. Why is it that she hasn’t come forth with an alibi when Donita knows she saw her in town at the time her ma’am is said to have been killed?

But more importantly, how is she going to find evidence to support her claim — one that will be outlandish coming from a domestic worker — when her every move is scrutinised by Mrs Fann, her unreasonable and cruel employer?

Flor's case stirs up unease among the ma'ams, many of whom share gossip on Facebook groups and balk at the idea of treating their employees with fairness and dignity.

But the situation also has migrant workers in this city of inequality on edge. “What about the woman who endured third-degree burns from having a kettle of boiled water thrown at her? What about the woman whose sir made her take off her nightgown, mop the floor with it, and then wear the filthy sopping clothes to bed?”

The social media chatter is worsened by the case of Marisol Conception, a Filipino woman who was accused of murder and sentenced to death in 2001. The saga divided employers and employees — those who believed she was guilty and those who held firm to her innocence — pitting them against one another. Will history repeat itself?

Jaswal knows what she’s writing about and it’s not because she holds a PhD in South Asia diaspora writing. She was born in Singapore and moved to the Philippines with her family when she was 15 years old. It was only after this that she started thinking differently about Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic worker who was accused of killing a child and executed.

'Now You See Us' by Balli Kaur Jaswal.
Image: Supplied 'Now You See Us' by Balli Kaur Jaswal.

“Being from Singapore, and only having access to one side of the story, I didn’t question what I knew until I learned a different narrative in the Philippines,” she writes in her author’s note. “Although this novel is not a retelling of those specific events, it was inspired by my formative experience of traversing places and their truths.”

And it’s the telling of these stories, these truths, that Jaswal has executed so deftly, with rawness and empathy. “Imagine if we all stopped working. Imagine what would happen to this country,” a domestic worker remarks to Angel ahead of a planned show of solidarity.

It’s a question that’s haunting, not just because of the truth it lays bare, but because of its universality: imagine what would happen — there, in the US, even here. What would modern society look like? Now there’s a thought to chew on.

Click here to buy the book