Modern-day Singapore becomes a whispering thicket of ghosts and gossip in a mysterious though in some ways unsatisfying tale.
Perhaps as a defense against possible criticism of Shadow Theatre’s multilayered voices and personalities, Cheong (The Scent of the Gods, 1991), a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, makes one of her main characters a novelist whose American publisher is troubled by her latest book’s multiple voices: “Don’t Americans know how to pay attention to several people talking at one time? They should come sit at a dinner table over here.” The story is set in a tightly connected Singapore neighborhood that’s full to bursting with history and yet is slowly being subsumed by spiritless modernity. Tongues start wagging when local girl Shakilah Nair, the novelist, returns after many years in America, pregnant and with a scandalously bare left hand. But for all the noise about Shakilah’s condition, it is hardly the most notable of things going on: philandering, murder, and abuse, for example, not to mention the ghosts that seem to lurk behind every bush and the stories of vampires and local shamans. Cheong approaches her tale from all angles and by means of many different narrators, including servants, tongue-clucking gossips, and teenaged girls eager for exploration and discovery. All is conveyed in Cheong’s musical take on Singapore language, a sing-songy rhythm that from the first page pleasantly engulfs the reader amid a luscious blend of cultures and languages—Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Catholic, Muslim, animist—that further makes for a seductive setting. If only it were easier to clarify what is taking place: it isn’t the many narrators that muddy the narrative, it’s Cheong’s restless jumping around and her coy way with facts—flaws that don’t make for an unpleasant experience, merely an occasionally frustrating one.
On balance, skillful work that should appeal to lovers of mystical literature—including Maxine Hong Kingston’s Warrior Woman.