TEXT review

Suburban and national anxiety

review by Donna Lee Brien


Lau Siew Mei
The Last Immigrant
Epigram Books, Singapore 2018
ISBN: 9789814785129
Pb 280pp SGD24.90


Lau Siew Mei’s novel The Last Immigrant revolves around the residents of a small six-house cul-de-sac in Brisbane, Australia. The main protagonist is Ismael, an immigrant from Singapore, who works in the Brisbane office of the federal government department that deals with approving asylum seekers’ claims for protection and residency. Like many representations of suburban life in fiction, the pace of life in this Brisbane street seems calm and unruffled but, inside the homes, the inhabitants’ lives are not only dramatic but – in this case – also interlinked in unexpected ways. Stressed at work, Ismael’s home life is increasingly unsettling – as readers learn that his neighbour has committed suicide, his wife is diagnosed with a serious illness and his daughter plans to move overseas. Despite the rational way that these events and situations can be described and even explained, an eerie sense of creeping malevolence underpins this story as it unfolds. This escalates when Ismael’s cat, Imelda – a surprisingly key figure in this narrative – is nowhere to be found.

A compelling feature of this novel is the powerful portrayal of the soul-crushingness of Ismael’s highly bureaucratic administrative work, and the heartbreaking petty politics and personal enmities of the workplace. These are vividly played out against the life and death implications of the decisions about refugee claims made therein. While obviously alluding to Australia’s enduringly intractable immigration issues through its plot and the work of its central character, this novel also draws considerable power from its understandings of Brisbane as a locality, and the vivid portrayal of the suburban lifestyle. In this, The Last Immigrant joins a wide range of much-loved and influential fiction and autobiographical literature set in Brisbane and, particularly, in the Brisbane suburbs. This includes works such as David Malouf’s Johnno (1975) and 12 Edmondstone Street (1985), Andrew McGahan’s Praise (1992) and Sally Breen’s The Casuals (2011). These volumes, and I include The Last Immigrant here, capture not only the seductive attractiveness of the bright warm days, lush plant-field yards and closeness to the bush of many Brisbane homes, but also the sometimes-attendant sense of sticky claustrophobia and lonely isolation of sub-tropical suburbia. This is not unique to Brisbane – Eddie Tay has included Lau in a series of Singaporean and Malaysian writers whose literary works ‘articulate a pervasive anxiety accompanying the sense of disorientation that attends to the notion of home’ (Tay 2007: 2-3), alluding to ‘home’ in its broadest sense. In The Last Immigrant, a vivid contrast is made between the immigrant’s dilemma around the idea of finding a home and the established locals’ sense of belonging in the Brisbane suburbs.

Born in Singapore and currently living in Brisbane, with experience as a journalist, and a number of short stories and poems published (AustLit 2018), Lau is best known as a novelist for her first book, Playing Madame Mao (Lau 2000), which Singapore novelist Hwee Hwee Tan, writing in Time magazine, described as ‘one of the best novels ever written about Singapore’ (Tan 2002). Like Playing Madam Mao, The Last Immigrant weaves together the personal and the political, and the realistic with the mythical and mystical, in order to underscore how the minutiae of everyday life and relationships are never untouched by the ramifications of larger events and systems. These novels also share an idea that there are dangerous forces at work in all our lives. Both these novels, together with Lau’s second novel for adults, The Dispeller of Worries (Lau 2009) mobilise a narrative structure that comprises intricate plotting, and the interweaving of a number of storylines and themes. These range from the internal contemplation of personal fears to love affairs at various stages of development or disintegration, crimes and national politics. Sim Wai Chew has written that ‘the rejection of linear modes’ is a ‘hallmark’ of Lau’s writing (Sim 2009: 119), and this mode of interwoven and fragmented storytelling – together with a hint of magic realism – is also apparent in The Last Immigrant, although here it is more muted than in Lau’s previous novels.

With its themes of (anti-)immigration and xenophobia, teenage alienation, death, grief and the difficulties of negotiating social, interracial and religious relationships in, and outside, the family home, community and nation, The Last Immigrant presents a worldview in which the characters experience difficulty in making real connections. Challenging the rhetoric of multicultural assimilation and inclusivity, Lau’s perspective is not, however, all gloomy, also highlighting the real strengths that can be displayed by individuals under pressure. In an interview following the book’s release, Lau indeed stated that one of its aims was to illustrate that

the pain of rejection in whatever form can be transformative. Being “different” or “other” or “unwanted by others” isn’t going to destroy you. The only thing that destroys you is when you start internalising it and reject yourself. (in Toh 2018)

This and other important messages of tolerance and the centrality of a sense of belonging for identity formation are central in The Last Immigrant.  Longlisted for the Epigram Books fiction prize, The Last Immigrant is a beautifully written, imaginatively conceived, intriguing and, in its resonances with the current political climate, an undoubtedly important novel.


Works cited




Donna Lee Brien, PhD, is Professor of Creative Industries at Central Queensland University. Donna has been researching, and writing about, creative writing since the 1990s. Her recent books include Recovering History Through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives (with Dallas Baker and Nike Sulway, 2017), Offshoot: Contemporary Life Writing Methodologies and Practice (with Quinn Eades, 2018) and The Routledge Companion to Literature and Food (with Lorna Piatti-Farnell, 2018). With over 300 published book chapters, journal articles, refereed conference papers, creative works and reviews, Donna is editor of 50 special journal issues, and the current co-editor of the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture. Donna is convener of the 2018 International Speculative Biography Symposium. d.brien@cqu.edu.ua


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker