The spider and her demons by Sydney Khoo
Outstanding! sydney khoo’s riveting story of a young teenager hiding her true spider self is an original and innovative foray into YA fiction and manages to explore teenage issues of body image, self esteem and gender identity without ever using any of those words. The central character Zhii has to plaster across the six eyes on her forehead, and keep her six other legs tucked inside her body, so as to appear normal to her schoolmates. She lives in dread of being accidentally exposed, and the fear and revulsion that she would invoke if anyone should discover what she really is. She has been taught by her Aunt Mei, her only relation, to “Be small. Be quiet. Be invisible.”
The novel comes with a content warning about assault, violence and gore. But it is the violence of a comic strip story of demons and monsters: the spider devouring its victim, and the beheading of an evil thug. That is not to say it is light reading, it is certainly intense and exciting, but the fantasy element allows some distancing from the events. The themes are most definitely serious, and relate to body dysphoria, psychosis, and suicidal ideation. However the way they are portrayed allows the reader to empathise and learn about those issues on a level that is easier to manage, and at the same time readily absorb khoo’s messages about courage, self acceptance, and tolerance.
Zhi’s relationship with her adoptive parent, Aunt Mei, a ‘tiger mum’, sheds light on the conflict experienced by children of migrant families that hold to different standards to the community in which they find themselves. In this aspect khoo’s book shares themes with writers such as Rebecca Lim Tiger daughter (2013) and Alice Pung One hundred days (2021). Zhi has the added burden of living up to her aunt’s expectations, on top of her personal 'monster' problems.
The central characters of Zhi, the spider demon, and her new friend Dior, the girl who seems to have everything but has secret problems of her own, are absolutely fascinating, and I know that readers will be longing for more stories about the two of them. It’s not a story that immediately suggests a sequel but if khoo comes up with another novel in this vein I am sure it will be a winner.
Themes: Identity, Body image, Self esteem, Mental health, Tolerance, Diversity.