Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Memories of Borneo: Elsie Sze's Ghost Cave

by Alice Tsay


Elsie Sze, Ghost Cave: A Novel of Sarawak, Women in Publishing Society, 2014. 220 pgs.


About midway through Elsie Sze's Ghost Cave, one of her main characters experiences a conjunction of peace and pain when he returns, after a period of two years, to a site of major bloodshed during the Chinese insurrection at Sarawak. Disturbed by the quiet, he remarks to a shopkeeper that it feels wrong that there are so few signs of the earlier devastation. The shopkeeper responds, "This is only as far as your eyes can see." George Eliot writes at the end of The Mill on the Floss, "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair." In Ghost Cave, her third novel, Sze likewise seeks to uncover the stories that have been built over to make room for forward movement. Unlike for Eliot, seeing the past is a form of reparation for Sze.

Set mainly in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Ghost Cave blends multiple styles of storytelling: oral history, delayed revelation and frame narrative, along with the occasional epistolary interjection. In the present, Therese travels from her home in Toronto to Sarawak to interview her grandfather, Liu Ka Ming, about his experiences as a Communist guerrilla fighter in Borneo during the 1960s. He, in turn, gives her a manuscript about his great-grandfather Liu Hon Min (nicknamed Ah Min), dictated by Ah Min's son Liu Nan Sun to an English woman. The first part of the memoir tells of Ah Min's voyage from southern China to Sarawak during the mid-nineteenth century, his return to China twelve years later and his permanent return to Sarawak again shortly after that. The second part, set in the early twentieth century, records discoveries that Liu Nan Sun makes about his family history after his father's death. As Therese records her grandfather's memories by day and delves into the manuscript by night, she comes to realise that she must play a role in bringing closure to these stories in the present day.

Sze's dense plotting and abundance of characters testify to the complicated history of the region and its inhabitants over the past century and a half. Ghost Cave clearly conveys the cultural richness of Southeast Asia. Characters hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, among them Hakka, Hokkien, Malay, Teochew, Dayak and Bidayuh (a subset of Dayak). Even as she portrays intercultural friendships and marriages, Sze conveys the importance of ancestral and clan connections, particularly when made to bear the constant strain of loved ones going off—to war, to make fortunes, to return to lives left behind. The movements of these characters undermine the "from there to here" stereotype of immigration as they zigzag between places of aspiration and places of memory.

Additionally, the parallel time frames of the novel provide many moments of resonance across storylines. On the most obvious level, the Ghost Cave of the title appears in each of the stories. Additionally, the Taiping Rebellion; the Chinese insurrection against James Brooke, the White Rajah of Borneo and the fighting during the Communist Insurgency War all happen in close proximity within the pages of the novel, allowing readers to draw comparisons. On the more personal scale, an act of reconciliation brokered in the present day echoes one initiated a hundred years earlier. As William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

At times, however, Sze's juggling act also becomes the reader's. Some of the issues seem to be editorial rather than authorial: individual chapters have orienting labels ("The Journal: 1857" and "Guerilla Days: Life in the Jungle," for instance), but they appear only in the headings of the book rather than as actual chapter titles. Similarly, dates are offered only intermittently at the beginnings of chapters. One place where they would have been welcome is when the manuscript that provides one of the stories-within-the-story suddenly jumps about fifty years, shedding Ah Min's perspective and picking up in Liu Nan Sun's along the way. Perhaps as an extension of this, anachronisms occasionally appear in earlier stories, muffling distinctions between one period and another. In one scene, Ah Min and his best friend, residents of mid-nineteenth century Asia, slap each other's backs as they make a promise to one another. Elsewhere, his daily route to work is described as "a good twenty-minute walk"—an odd way to measure distance in a period before the widespread use of watches and clocks.

More problematically, the voices of individual characters never quite emerge in relief against the chorus of other speakers. The main variations seem to derive from differences in scene and subject rather than from the fact that a wholly new persona is at work. Each narrator is equally precise with dates, durations and other figures—the lengths of sea voyages; the day, month and year a specific event took place. While extremely helpful for conveying historical information, these pinpoint levels of detail seem unusual for the genre of oral history that categorises both the first sub-narrative (Ah Min's story has supposedly been passed down to his son Liu Nan Sun and then related to a woman named Mary Ann Warrick) and the second (Therese's grandfather recalls tales of his past as she peppers him with questions). Somewhat disappointingly for a novel that won the inaugural Saphira Prize presented by Hong Kong's Women in Publishing Society, moreover, female characters get short shrift here. For the most part, they fall into archetypal roles: spinster aunt, conniving mother-in-law, angel of mercy, exhausted army wife, silent scribe. Even Therese, through whom Sze frames the story, sometimes feels less like a fully-fledged character and more like a way to connect all the dots.

Throughout Ghost Cave, Sze draws the past into the present and uses the revelations of the present to reinterpret the past. In a way, the similarity between her characters' voices performs the ultimate traversal. Despite geographical and temporal differences, her writing style suggests, the human experience comprises more that is shared than distinct. However, there can be dangers in holding our predecessors so close, in thinking of them as models or peers. In some cases, transcendence can be the easy way out.

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