The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu is one of our school’s considerations for the grade nine de-streamed classroom. These are my thoughts on whether or not we should include this book in our book club selection. To learn more about our Inclusive Classroom Library Project, please click here.
A Very Brief Plot Outline
The Frangipani Tree Mystery is set in 1936 British-controlled Singapore. Near the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Chen Su Lin, who limps because of polio and who should soon enter an arranged marriage. Saved by her mentor from the Mission School, Miss Nessa intends to place Su Lin as an assistant and housekeeper to Chief-Inspector Le Froy.
Upon meeting with Le Froy, Su Lin learns that a murder recently occurred at the Acting Governor’s House, run by Sir Henry Palin. His daughter’s caregiver, Charity Byrne, fell over the edge of a balcony and was stabbed.
Palin’s daughter, a teenager with learning difficulties, likes Su Lin. As such, Palin orders Su Lin to be his new housekeeper. Saying no to such a powerful man is not a great idea, so she takes the job. Le Froy warns Su Lin to be careful and asks her to keep her eyes open for clues. She agrees to report anything she finds to Le Froy.
After some time, Palin’s wife dies of a drug overdose, adding to the mystery. Su lin slowly uncovers the truth and puts her own life in jeopardy along the way.
While this does feel like a cozy-mystery genre novel, it is also a fascinating look into colonial rule. Since the book is written in the first person, we also get to take a look through Su Lin’s eyes. She is a Malayan woman with a limp from polio living in 1930s Singapore during British rule. She must overcome incredible obstacles to live the life that she wants. The novel doesn’t preach about the problems of colonialism, but that message is present throughout the story.
Who Will Like This?
Certainly, fans of mystery novels will enjoy the book. It is clever and well-written. Also, fans of moderate anti-colonial books will enjoy Su Lin’s unique perspective.
Outside of its core audience, I’m not sure the novel has too much appeal. It is a little slow and structurally similar to any other cozy mystery. While the story is good in many respects, I don’t think it’s the kind of book one remembers for years with the feeling that, oh damn! I just read something life-changing!
I could see many grade nine readers losing interest in this one.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery is a good book, and I highly encourage you to read it; however, I think it’s too genre-specific and isn’t a good choice for our grade nine students.