November 2002

Chris Periera

Shadow Theatre by Fiona Cheong

“If you don’t want people to talk, you better do the talking yourself” is the overall theme of this book. The year is 1994 and the community just off River Road in Singapore is feeling the full force of the modern age. It is creeping in on them like the old tales of ghosts and luck once did. Some still whisper to each other of the ghost-lady (Pontianak), and how she will snatch newborns’ lives to feed her hunger. Or of the poor woman whom nobody knew personally, who wanted her husband to love her again and so made a concoction to do just that. Unfortunately, the husband fell in love with their daughter instead. That was only a tale though; a rumor discussed by the elderly late at night, and heard through the walls by the children.

There are two ways one can approach the story, and it should be noted that neither one can be completely ruled out. It is left up to the reader to decipher its meaning. If you prefer to become immersed in the supernatural and see things from that perspective, you can. If, on the other hand, the gossip is what you are after, you will not be disappointed. Everyone knows everything about everyone else. The accepted beliefs are to be followed and obeyed; if they are broken – perhaps by marrying an angmo (white boy) – disapproval, and even bad luck, will rain down on you to no end, as Shak found out when she returned, pregnant, from America after 15 years. Rumors flew door to door like the wind, and by the end of her first week with her mother, the entire town was buzzing about the bad luck and misfortune that Shak would undoubtedly bring with her wherever she went.

The younger generations are interested in the cult-type beliefs to some extent as well, as Lulu Mendez and her friends attempt communication with the spirit world, perhaps causing the disappearance of a number of people. The local Bohmo, or healer/magic person, is also an attraction to them, as she aids them with recipes for love, and ways in which to view their future husbands. Each of these endeavors is related in several chapters as if at an interview after the fact.

Although there are some interesting analogies in the novel, such as, “…And my heart, I tell you. Flapping here and there, like a wild hen waking up and finding itself in a cage…”, the narration in general is fast paced and hard to follow. The entire novel is a collection of small, seemingly unrelated stories about various residents and their quirks and flaws told in first person by others. By the end of the novel however, it becomes apparent that all the small stories are building to form a picture of the entire community, which creates an interesting perspective when discovered. For each chapter, there is a new narrator, and so it is up to the reader to keep track of who says what to whom, and so on, making it far less enjoyable to read than I think it could have been.

To an ambitious reader who is willing to take the time to perhaps make some notes while reading, this book could probably be a good read. Be sure you are wide awake when reading it though, if you miss a sentence, you could be lost for the whole chapter!

Shadow Theatre by Fiona Cheong
SOHO Press Inc
ISBN: 1-56947-287-4
233 pages