Bernice Chauly writes beautifully. One example:
"I have long memories of rain. Soft tropical showers, majestic, thunderous storms, and itinerant drizzles, which would come and go for hours, days. The Malaysian monsoon is a vehement creature, powerful and glorious, yet tender enough to soothe one into the most delicious of sleeps. This is how I remember the rains. My childhood came with the rains."
On the back cover, a reviewer remarked that "Once We Were There is as Malaysian as Teh Tarik - sweet, dark and a jolt to the senses." My problem with the book was that it portrayed a Malaysia that I could not relate to. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, if people only read fiction based on worlds that they knew and loved, life would get very boring very fast. And, to be fair, I did enjoy reading the story and appreciated the points it made. I just found the characters a tad too pretentious.
Short summary: The book tells a complicated tale of love, human trafficking, substance abuse, family, and transgender rights. It's about the life of a journalist named Delonix Regia in Kuala Lumpur circa 1998. This is the only work of fiction that I've read based around the Reformasi movement so it was an interesting peek into the lives of political activists at the time. The best theme throughout the book: unlike the quintessentially Malaysian way of categorizing everybody, nobody in Del's world really fit neatly into a box. And that made everything so much more fun.
I've decided to give each book I review a jasmine-flower-AKA-bunga-melati-emoji rating. This one gets a: