Kit Sun Cheah’s novel has a distinctly Edwardian feel. It is presented in the form of an annotated diary and I was reminded at times of both The King In Yellow and The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Comparisons don’t really do it justice, though, because this is not a pastiche, it is a modern novel about present day Singapore.
The story begins with the discovery of a decomposed corpse in an apartment. The police can find no identification, but there are a series of journals near the body, written in a mixture of languages.
Two police officers work on the case, a translator, and, after the nature of the diaries becomes clear, an officer who is familiar with the local traditions of witchcraft.
The diaries tell the story of an unnamed young man who is in training to become a bomoh, a Malay sorcerer. The officers assigned to the case append their notes to the translated document, but for the most part the young man tells his own story.
There is a kind of bleak inevitability to the tale. Even without the opening scene to give away the end of the story the descent of the narrator is clear.
Here Cheah performs a kind of dark alchemy. We see a man who is surrendering to evil, step by step, and yet–somehow, it was impossible for me not to feel for him.
Rather like The Stranger and The Collector, the bomoh justifies every step of his descent. He is an intelligent, articulate man, not without a certain naïve charm. He inspires both fear and pity, and sense of lost potential. Here, I kept thinking, is a man who could have been a very good man, if things had only been different.
The foreign (to me, an unregenerate Midwestern American) locale is handled deftly. What is important for Westerners to grasp about the culture of Singapore is delivered simply and without apology. The pathos of the story is universal, the details never got in the way.
All in all, a classic cautionary tale. The format adds gravitas to the morality play. Without being preachy, the warning is clear. More than once during the story I was uncomfortably reminded of my own misspent youth, and paths that, but for the grace of God, I could have taken.