“Before the Valley”
by Rachel Heng
from the June 7, 2021 issue of The New Yorker
I don’t think I heard about Rachel Heng’s debut novel from 2018, Suicide Club, but it appears to have fetched a premium due to a bidding war and to have done very well. Heng was only thirty! She has published quite a bit of short fiction in some great magazines, but I believe this is her first in The New Yorker.
“Before the Valley” takes place in a Singapore retirement community called Sunrise Valley. When it begins, one of the residents, Hwee Bin, is looking forward to a birthday party because it’s one of the best places to socialize, something she was not good at even “before.”
“Before” was the shorthand residents used for their lives prior to Sunrise Valley. Before wasn’t talked about often; it felt unseemly somehow, self-indulgent, to dwell on one’s past life. What did it matter, for example, that Cynthia, from Ward 8, had been an actress who starred in the horror lms that used to be made here in Singapore, back in the sixties? Or that Hasmi, from Ward 12, had been a lawyer and was even rumored to have owned his own rm? They were all here now, Sunrise Valley residents one and the same. Sure, Cynthia was in a two-bedder with a garden view, and Hasmi had one of the few, coveted, and very expensive single wards. They still had to come to the linoleum-tiled dining room each morning for the same soggy kaya toast and watered-down coffee. Still took their seats each evening in front of the television, which blared, alternately, English-, Chinese-, Malay-, and Tamil-language soaps. Wards aside, were the residents not all in the same boat? The details might differ—mild dementia, children too busy to visit, loss of leg function, no living relatives—but the crux of the matter was the same. You were stuck in Sunrise Valley regardless, whether it was paid for by your dwindling pension, the government, or an erstwhile child.
As we begin the summer in earnest, I hope it’s a good one for you all. I look forward to reading this and many other stories! Please feel free to let us know your thoughts on “Before the Valley”!
Some nice moments here and a writer with promise, that’s what I read anyway. It’s not some life-changing short story or undeniable genius transforming the literary scene, but it does have a strong premise and manages to deal with topics that could’ve become sentimental if conjured by a less agile author. Heng’s approach is mature and compendious.
Linguistically nimble and filled with three-dimensional characters, too, so credit her there. The plot is subtle and avoids moments that could easily have been rendered in a way that was overwrought or histrionic. Relationships are evoked with concision. An enjoyable, honest, well-paced piece of short fiction here.
Agree. Thanks for saving me from having to write that.
Tough, honest piece of work! Sad commentary on living too long. This is not in my game plan as I told my kids to run me over with a city bus.
Sean H.–I’ve seen your comments before over the years but what you wrote here is an incredibly terse capsule review. I am with William–you’ve more or less spoken for me.
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story set in Singapore that was not from a British perspective–there’s my big original addendum.
This story was moving and managed to mix humanism with realism without being cold or maudlin.