By Laura Zhang/
“Living in the castle were two princes, a princess and their dog Coffee. The children could do anything they wanted – well, if not for the pesky butler, OB Markus.”
Sounds like a fairy tale? Maybe yes, maybe no. So what exactly is The Phantom of Oxley Castle? The launch on Monday was a slightly delayed one. The earlier publicity led to a forum writer in The Straits Times pointedly asking: “Who is he (the publisher) trying to kid? It is obviously a satire or a parody.” This despite the claim that it is a children’s book.
Sadly, I don’t have a little one to run an assessment on its correctness of genre. But I’ve been a child once, and am able to effortlessly name a series of fairy tales which could wonderfully serve as parodies.
So is the book really a parody?
More often than not, a children’s fiction boasts stronger characters than any adult fiction you come across. These books evoke children’s delicate emotions. It’s a whole new wild world that you would have difficulty fathoming. We remember Snow White by her kindness and innocence, or perhaps her rosy lips, and everything quite opposite of her toxic step-mother.
Likewise, there is no lack of vibrant characters in Oxley Castle – fearless and authoritative Princess Harriet, nerdy but thoughtful eldest Prince Humphrey, lion-obsessed plus timid youngest Prince Hector, not to forget the inflexible old fellow OB Markus.
A children’s novel leaves room for imagination. Through illustrations of the plots, each person finds a unique way to interpret. A classic example is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Children are simply enchanted by the plots and characters, of Prince and rose, and of the adventure across the universe. Adults enjoy the book through an entirely different perspective – they see hope, love, innocence and values.
Readers of different ages would interpret the metaphors differently, and that is precisely what Oxley Castle seems to offer, deliciously. A trace of surprise can be discovered in the climax by children, while the sense of ridicule is visible only to those who have an idea of our society.
It is an engrossing experience to flip through the book – happily hunting a Singaporean presence, with clues ranged from durians, Merlions to an association’s lightning logo, which somewhat require a level of maturity to get the message.
As the royal toddlers chased the “ghost”, there popped up a stiff “stately organ”. Relatable or not, it sounds like the term “organ of state”, meaning one of the three divisions of power – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
An OB marker, short for “out of bounds marker”, is commonly used in Singapore as an unspoken standard denoting topics that are permissible for public discussion.
Cultural awareness is a key. Whenever Singaporeans describe an unbelievable scenario, they make a reference to “Korean drama”, on a rather regular basis. Although “Korean drama” is not a complex form of expression, kids of certain age hardly comprehend the underlying cultural connotations of that usage.
Just like Animal Farm by George Orwell, Oxley Castle shares a similar purpose of writing, with the intent of teasing certain parties. The main reason why Animal Farm does not fall into a kid’s catagory – despite having lively pigs and horses as protagonists – is due to the complex concepts brought forth in the text. Examples of such jargons include “propaganda” and “bandwagon”, which explicitly suggest its political nature. On the other hand, Oxley Castle is not so indigestible for even less sophisticated readers.
Oxley Castle, an atlas of absurdity and authenticity, is for anyone who ponders and asks. There is neither a disturbing section, nor an overarching sentiment. It feels light-hearted and humorous, a perfect Christmas shelf collection. With hindsight, it prompts a rethink of a real-life plot taking place, as well as the stage we are going through, allowing a degree of liberalness to manoeuvre.
The Phantom of Oxley Castle is said to be inspired by the Lee family saga over 38 Oxley Road. It is a joint effort. Edmund Wee, publisher of Epigram Books, came up with the idea. Chloe Tong, a postgraduate student at the University of Warwick and Liana Gurung, a graduate of NUS, wrote it. Illustration is by cartoonist Ann Gee Neo.