Book Review: Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto

Influx Press, 2019

Fiction | Independent publishing | Life-writing | Feminism

Shiromi Pinto’s second novel Plastic Emotions is a work of biographical fiction about 20th century, Sri Lankan architect Minette de Silva: the first female Asian architect to have international success, though she received limited recognition during her lifetime compared with her male counterparts and has since been forgotten. Plastic Emotions fictionalises her life in an attempt to draw attention to her forgotten achievements. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, with intriguing characters, good narrative pace, and an easy-to-read writing style that mixes fragments of correspondence with third-person narration.

The political backdrop of the novel is interesting. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is newly independent and riots and lifestyle restrictions ensue as Sinhalese, Buddhist nationalists fight for power against marginal Tamil groups. The novel hints at the impact on Ceylonese people but the novel’s political backdrop is often too remote from its bourgeois protagonists, who remain largely unaffected by these events.

The narrative follows the correspondence and lives of Minette and her lover Le Corbusier - a married, male, Western architect - through the 1940s to 1960s, as their relationship is stretched by distance, their careers and Le Corbusier’s negligence. The novel consists of both Minette and Le Corbusier’s perspectives but it’s Minette’s life and relationships that we invest in.

The architectural theme is levelled well to those unfamiliar with the field, and details of de Silva’s buildings and her design process are genuinely interesting. De Silva is considered a pioneer as she is the first to adapt modernist styles to Asian contexts and she integrated the work of local artists and craftspeople into her buildings, though these achievements could be played out more in the novel. Instead, Pinto focuses on Minette’s fictionalised personal life; but I would have been happy to read more about her work.

I found instant enjoyment in this novel and was hooked into the international intellectual scene Minette is part of: much like scenes from a Simone de Beauvoir novel. However, Plastic Emotions is a little disappointing. It’s an exciting premise – the recovery of the life of a forgotten woman - but Pinto leaves a lot to be desired from a feminist standpoint. Pinto’s characterisation of Minette is lacking, and the impact of gender on de Silva’s career is oversimplified. Compared to Pinto’s portrayal of de Silva in an article she wrote for Architectural Review, which depicts Minette as expressive, unapologetic and a force to be reckoned with, the Minette of Plastic Emotions is less sparkling. She seems timid, is often overshadowed by her white English friend Mimi and regularly panders to Le Corbusier’s ego. Furthermore, Minette’s reflections on how gender impacts her work and life lack complexity and depth; she occasionally remarks that she doesn’t get contracts or that clients are reluctant to pay the ‘girl architect’ but there is little critique or emotion behind these comments. I had anticipated a more nuanced feminist exploration of gender which wasn't fulfilled.

I was invested enough in the characters and plot that I looked forward to my next reading session but the plotline does lose momentum towards the end of the book. Some of the more suspenseful details are abandoned; for example, Pinto hints at one character’s responsibility for another’s death and suggests problems in Minette’s sister’s marriage but these twists never come to fruition. By the final one hundred pages, I realised the plot wasn't going to come to a climax and instead this part of the book was a wrapping up of Minette and Le Corbusier’s life stories. However, these disappointments this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the novel and the book is a fruitful attempt to expose readers to a forgotten figure and some of Asia's political history. I recommend Pinto’s Architectural Review article as supplementary reading. 4/5

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