Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2019

Real Differences (2019), by S.L. Lim

Real Differences is the debut novel of S.L. Lim, who was born in Singapore but came to Australia as an infant, and (as the blurb says) has spent a good part of her life toggling back and forth between the two places.  Perhaps this bi-cultural experience is what enables her to cast a forensic eye on the illusions we have about Australian multiculturalism, social class and ‘the fair go’…

This is the blurb:

This is a story of a friendship so connected that without it one is not whole but lost.
Middle-class, clever and white, Nick is a child of privilege while his best friend Andie is the daughter of Indo-Chinese refugees. Despite their very different backgrounds, they share a conviction they can change the world for the better.
At the outset, Nick is pushing papers in a dead-end job while Andie is embarking on a secular crusade against world poverty. This generates conflict with her white husband Benjamin, who feels that Australians should come first. Meanwhile, Andie’s cousin, the teenage Tony is burdened by his parents’ traumatic past and impossible expectations. To their dismay, he finds solace in radical faith.
S.L. Lim acutely captures the dreams and disaffections of a millennial generation. Real Differences is an emotionally resonant novel about idealism, ethical ambition, and love, filled with unforgettable characters. It ultimately asks us the most important question of all: What is our life for?

Lim’s characters occasionally stray into polemics when they are passionate about issues, but the issues they raise are real.  At the same time, there is a strong focus on the feelings of the characters.  The generation depicted in the novel spends a great deal of time thinking about things and analysing their own motivations, but they can be blind to flaws just like any generation.  The narration shifts between Nick and an omniscient observer, and the intimacy of this technique enables the juxtaposition of all the characters’ internal thoughts with subsequent dialogue.  Towards the end of the novel, for example, we see an image of domestic harmony….

Benjamin cooked breakfast for the two of them: eggs and tomatoes in a pan, buttered toast and coffee.  It looked like breakfast in a cartoon about happy breakfasting. (p.240)

…but this episode is juxtaposed with dialogue that shows a marriage falling apart in rising conflict. The scene goes on to reveal that Ben, married to an Indo-Chinese character, is dismissive about casual racism at social events and can’t understand why Andie arcs up because he doesn’t confront it.  Knowing that Tony’s family had to flee Indonesia in the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, she wonders how loyal her husband and friends would be if they were confronted by guns and flaming torches, when they won’t even stick up for her when someone tells a stupid joke that patronises people who are not White.  And she realises that while there may be no such thing as colour in a mixed-race relationship such as hers, the price of it is her dignity because she is being given the status of an ‘honorary White’ instead of being valued as who she is.

This gulf between them is one of many situations in the novel that show characters interrogating the ethics of their behaviour.

For Nick, empathy is a foreign concept, and it’s not just in matters concerning racism:

I got back from London a lot richer than when I had left.  I had taken a position in a firm which specialised in corporate restructuring, a euphemism for wiping the blood off the floor after a corporate collapse.  This firm had experienced an unexpected boom after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

‘You’re the Grim Reaper,’ my boss explained.  ‘So go forth and reap.’

I did feel sorry for the people who had just been fired.  Still, there was definitely a sick pleasure to it, watching the best and brightest of the City encounter failure for the first time in their lives.  They were ferociously ambitious, educated to the hilt and possessed of intelligence which was limited but acute.  You could see the bewilderment in their eyes as circumstances got the better of them for the very first time.  (p.49)

So, no, Nick’s not a likeable character, but then none of them are.  Andie is insufferable about her work in secular philanthropy, Ben is smug about his social status, and Nick’s girlfriend Linda is so blasé about everything it’s exasperating just to read about it.

In a fundamental way, Linda was more honest than I.  She had her code of adulthood, which meant adhering to one’s interest at all cost.  Whether from her experiences or due to some intrinsic part of her personality, she had become convinced at an early age that other people were fickle, and human relations inherently extractive.  The only rational response was to take what you could get, before your so-called friends vanished in a puff of smoke, or your boyfriend revealed the duplicity she seemed to anticipate from all men.  The strawberry sweetness was both reality and ruse: she had leached her persona of frustration, anger and regret, believing no potential partner would tolerate such unseemly displays of emotion.  She kept strict control over her mind and heart. She could be moved by a work of art, but only temporarily: it was something to be consumed, not to be consumed by.  (p.100)

But the most troubling character is young Tony, who at fourteen abandons the Christian religion of his overbearing parents and becomes a Muslim.  What with the fallout at home and his alienation from his peers, it’s easy to see how he gets sucked into a group preaching radicalism.  There is rather a lot about his zealous embrace of Islamic teachings as he progresses through school and goes on to university, but the ultimate catastrophe still comes as a surprise.

It’s an interesting debut, and it’s refreshing to see an author embrace diversity in the friendships she depicts.

Author: S L Lim
Title: Real Differences
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019
ISBN: 9781925760286, pbk., 288 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and Fishpond: Real Differences


  1. There’s something recentre-ing about a novel in which none of the characters are the sort that someone might call unlikeable. It reminds readers that we are all kinda broken, each in their own way, none of us wholly likeable, depending who’s doing the evaluation! :)


    • I see at Goodreads that there are people who will only read books that they can ‘relate to’ and I think this is a worrying trend. I mean, I get that many people read for escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that, any reading is a good thing IMO. But with the rise of social media and the way we can tailor the news and opinions that we hear so that they match ours, it means that people who do that kind of filtering are living in a kind of echo bubble. And if there’s one thing that’s essential for democracy to work, it’s an informed electorate, who don’t just know what their politicians are up to, but also about the needs and interests of other people around them.
      I found the characters in this book utterly unlike anyone I know. I don’t their ethnicity, we have friends from all over the place and of all different skin colours, religions, income groups). I mean their way of thinking obsessively about themselves. So it was illuminating for me, I learned something new about people from reading this book!


  2. Well said. In a rat race of ambitions and ego driven agendas what else could happen? To even discuss values such as loyalty is not common conversation. The divisions even in the family whatever that’s supposed to mean these days is causing terrible breakdown in all areas of our health. These are toxic times and the catastrophe is still being denied in many quarters. It’s good to know there are young brave writers out there telling their stories. In these alienating times this is vital.


    • Yes, you’re right, Faye, but one thing we can do is worth on making connections in our own community. In the last couple of days I’ve met two new families in our street and I’m planning a get-together with the ‘old’ neighbours so that they feel a sense of belonging. It was really lovely to see how delighted they both were with the idea, I think people are longing for a sense of community but are these days a bit hesitant to try making it happen.


  3. I’ve noticed all my adult life that people (like me) are often perfectly friendly to non-Anglos but in ways that include all sorts of prejudices or failures of empathy. The simplest and most frequent of course is anglicizing “odd sounding” names. I would be interested to read a novel that included discussion of this.


    • LOL One thing you should know is that often it’s been their own choice to anglicise their names. When I first started at my last school I met parents of children introduced to me as Jennifer and Martin &c and I asked them about their other names, because after five years in multi-ethnic Springvale, I was used to calling children by their non-Anglo names (which often have beautiful meanings). All of them liked my interest, but said that they preferred the Anglo names they’d chosen. They felt it was easier for their children, and anyway they liked the names. (Many of them were named after celebrities, like Jackson, after Michael Jackson).
      I do sometimes come across people who mispronounce a name and then give a self-conscious laugh and say that it’s hard for them, which suggests to my ears not only that they haven’t bothered to try but also that they think they shouldn’t have to. At Tim’s graduation there were graduates from all over the world with names that were not Anglo at all, and the woman announcing them did not stumble once. She was brilliant.


  4. As a regular traveller by train and bus I have many interesting conversations with people from diverse backgrounds. I also talk to beggars and homeless people if I sense it is ok. Their courage and resiliance never ceases to amaze. My problem is how helpless I feel with no ability to help in any real way. I am from a talking city Glasgow too so it’s a natural way of being which has never left me. The multicultural aspect of this country was what appealed to me from day one and that has never changed. Your blog is a great site of interest and I pass on many of your recommendations often to not very enthusiastic readers.


    • Well, that would be nice to know if my thoughts about books influenced not very enthusiastic readers to pick up a book!
      I had a tricky situation today and I’m not sure if I handled it right… there is a group home for disabled people near us and on nice sunny days like today they often take a walk, and I stop for a chat when I’m out walking the dog. I make a point of focussing on the disabled person, and not on the carer pushing the chair, even if the disabled person isn’t able to talk very well. I do this because I so often see people talking only to the carer, and I think that must be humiliating for the disabled person. But today the carer pushing the chair was a young man of colour (with gorgeous dreads!) and I felt uncomfortable about not focussing on him in case he felt that I was being unfriendly. I wanted to clone myself…


  5. […] counts, I’ve read 9 books with LGBTIQ themes and characters this year, and of those I offer Real Differences by S. L. […]


  6. […] Real Differences (S L Lim, Transit Lounge), see my review […]


  7. […] Real Differences (S L Lim, Transit Lounge), see my review […]


  8. […] While SMH’s Best Young Australian Novelists is one of the best known emerging writers awards, there are others. Many, like this one, are age-related, such as The Australian Vogel Literary Award which was won this year by Katherine Kruimink, A treacherous country. But not all are. The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards suite is for “a published book of fiction by an author who has not previously published a work of fiction that is booklength”. There is no age limit here. Last year’s winner was Trent Dalton with Boy swallows universe (my review), while this year’s was SL Lim with Real differences (Lisa’s review). […]


  9. […] Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and which I reviewed here).  Revenge is a very dark novel […]


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