I have felt my heart drop tons of my times, mostly when I receive confrontational or heartbreaking text messages on the phone, and every now and then when I open an exam results slip.
But I’ve never actually experienced the same heart drop until The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza, the debut novel written by Singaporean poet and author Cyril Wong. Published in 2013, the book is a short read that I finished in about two hours, so it’s really more a novella, if we want to be completely technical.
Last Lesson follows Rose de Souza, an English teacher in Singapore who is about to retire and conducts her final lesson in a class of 15-year old teenagers. (It’s quite hilarious because my English teacher when I was 15 was also a lady who went by de Souza.) She decides to share a tremendously condensed story from her past: Amir, one of her then-students comes out to her in her office one day, although the teacher omits crucial details when retelling her story.
When her goodhearted yet myopic intentions to help her student leads to dismal consequences, Rose’s recollection of the incident and how it’s impacted her life venture into the realm of unreliable narration; a meditation of Rose’s internal conflict to reconcile her actions to achieve inner peace.
The book intertwines the present-day lesson with frequent visits to both the protagonist’s past as well as the strange lucid dreams she experienced along the way, seemingly haunted by Amir and Rose’s own mother. These recounts shape Rose’s interpretations of her reality, which evolve continuously throughout the novel.
Rose is not a particularly likeable character, which is fascinating because she’s not one bit boring. Wong documents his protagonist’s naive, silly and sometimes deluded thought process explicitly through first-person perspective.
For an award-winning poet, Wong writes his debut novel in simple English that is easy to digest. The plot progression does feel aimless at certain instances, but the heart-dropping ending compensated and left me quite in awe.
Going into Last Lesson, I didn’t know what to expect from the novel; I’m not familiar with any of Wong’s works (not a fan of poetry at all), but I held the book in my hands and stared at in in deep rumination upon finishing it. The twist was powerful; it’s the part that
It’s not a particularly entertaining read, but it is inviting and easy to follow, so I enjoyed The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. It would also work brilliantly as a short film; filmmakers, please consider this one.