The Search for Home and Fatal Endings: Leitmotifs in Catherine Lim’s Following the Wrong God Home

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

The essay was originally conceived as part of a conference paper, entitled “The Subversive Nostalgia of the Planned Exit: Suicide and Happy Ends in the Novels of Catherine Lim and Amy Tan” and presented at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies: Fourth International Conference, held in Tampere, Finland, June 29-July 2, 2002.

Catherine Lim’s most recent novel with the cumbersome, though pertinent, title Following the Wrong God Home constitutes a departure from her colonial narratives -- a departure that masks its role as a historical novel about the recent past. Published in 2001, it spans the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, mapping changes in Singapore’s society as well as its landscape to indicate the passing of time. The doomed romance of the main protagonist is -- just like the romances of her predecessors in the earlier novels -- destroyed by historical contingencies and social mores.

The plot of Following the Wrong God Home is relatively simple, patterned on the juxtapositions of self and society, tradition and innovation, love and money, East and West. Yin Ling, engaged to Vincent Chee, one of Singapore’s fifty most eligible bachelors, meets Ben Gallagher, a troublesome and unkempt American exchange-lecturer, who has forgotten to leave radicalism with youth. Their romance is doomed from the beginning. The novel opens in medias res, as Yin Ling discovers a dead baby on a rubbish dump while on the way to her wedding. This sight of death is to haunt her throughout the book. What has happened before her marriage is then unfolded in the first part; the second part starts with the wedding ceremony. Ben has left Singapore, first for Hong Kong and then to ramble around the globe; Yin Ling settles down to married life and motherhood. Yet when they meet again, their love proves stronger than all other concerns.

This story of love and money, passion and duty, is dispersed with ethnographic mapping and social criticism, but also with descriptions of dreams and with the powerful, though at times comically described, leitmotif of the novel -- an old servant’s search for a home for her god-with-no-home. The homelessness of this unidentified god -- snub-nosed and grinning and perhaps simply an accidentally promoted mortal, a minor player in an opera -- bespeaks the confusions of a multicultural society, articulating a homesickness, a subversive nostalgia for a home suited for those that do not seem to fit in any of the ethnic or cultural slots available. The god-with-no-home is expelled from “the staircase gods” -- a secret shrine that Vincent’s mother keeps hidden under a staircase since her son’s conversion to Christianity -- as well as from the more openly displayed Nativity group in the living room. The god’s search for a place in a theme-park featuring various gods and goddesses offers ample opportunities for Ben and Yin Ling to meet, even inducing Ben to speculate that this god-with-no-home might be a god of love. The god’s final choice of a dilapidated piece of land destined to make way for a government project rehearses the dramatic ending (and beginning) of Lim’s earlier novel The Bondmaid. After the old servant’s death, Yin Ling sets out to “the remote village, in China, which they had managed to locate, to return her god to his home” (315). Yin Ling’s final letter to Ben, written in China, is then starkly juxtaposed with a released passenger list, including among the fatalities of a plane-crash Mrs Yin Ling Gallagher: And “all Ben could think was, She called herself Gallagher” (320).

This exit is a perfect ending. As the last lines of the book emphasise, she could not have died at a better time: “[Ben] would grow old, not burdened by the past but comforted and strengthened by it” (328). His nostalgia reinforces the formal satisfaction of the closure. It forms a convenient circumvention of both a messy Death-in-Life, in which duty and passion might continue to quarrel, and of suicide -- an option that is obliquely present throughout the book. Justin, the rich boy Yin Ling briefly tutors, commits suicide as the culmination of his passive resistance to a repressive society. He shares Yin Ling’s sensitivity; his homosexuality is as scandalous as her adultery. They both appear to be “an unappreciative presence at life’s rich feast” (132). His death seems to free her just as Septimus’s suicide articulates Mrs Dalloway’s despair or Bertha Mason rescues Jane Eyre. A suicidal Death-in-Life is similarly prefigured in a story Yin Ling remembers to have read once, and which “she had never forgotten” (181), a story of a married woman who fell in love with another man, with whom she had a short affair:

Afterwards, nothing mattered any more. Her life was over. She went through the remaining years, thirty in all, lifeless, spiritless, the walking dead. She walked upon the earth as one still alive, breathing, talking, eating, sleeping, sometimes even laughing, but inwardly she was a clod, dead thing, without life, meaning or hope. Such was her love for the man. Before she died, she gave instructions for these words to be carved on her tombstone: ‘She died at thirty, and was buried at sixty.’ (182)

Yet Yin Ling already died when she consigned her poems to the flames shortly before her marriage (144). It is Ben’s memory that retrieves them just as he will retrieve her memory after her death. The closure of the novel’s romance requires a contrived exit, after the god-with-no-home has been returned home to China, as if a larger plot or mission has to be ended first


Lim, Catherine. Following the Wrong God Home. London: Orion, 2001.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim

Last Modified: 28 November 2002