Ghost Cave: A Novel of Sarawak by Elsie Sze

9781496073945The Hong Kong International Literary Festival holds many interesting seminars this year. I register for four talks, which are based on the authors discussing their works and how they get inspirations to embark on a journey of writing: (1) The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni; (2) Susan Choi’s American Woman; (3) Ghost Cave by Elsie Sze; and (4) Dame Margaret Drabble’s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. I haven’t finished all of them except Ghost Cave. I very much regret for myself not having finished Ghost Cave before the talk so I might have come up with some good questions to ask the author. Last night I finished the last page – a very captivating novel indeed and easily becomes one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year as well as one of my favourite authors!

I believe in the spirits of our ancestors, who protect us from harm and whose primary concern is our welfare. Mostly, they are not seen, only felt by the sensitive among us. And, very occasionally, when these spirits choose to manifest themselves to the human eye, for reasons that are important to them, we call them ghosts.

James Brooke (1803-68)
James Brooke (1803-68)

This novel is multi-generational; it mainly recalls two generations in the time of the 1850s and 1960s illustrating with various sets of historical accounts happening in Sarawak (North Borneo) around that time. In the 1840s, the first generation, Liu Hon Min, originally born and raised in a Hakka community in Dongguang, China, immigrated to Sarawak with his childhood friend for the better hope of living as well as bringing wealth to his family under the suppression of the Manchu Dynasty. In these twelve blood-sweat years of labour in the Kingdom of Sarawak of which James Brooke was still in the fullest power and governance as the White Rajah, Hon Min participated in the Mau San Gold Miners’ Uprising in 1857, which brought heavy bloodshed to the Hakka communities in Sarawak and later experienced the tragedies in the loss of love and friendships. Apart from that, he also endured the confrontation between Punti and Hakka communities in the mid-1860s. A hundred years later, the great-grandson of Liu Hon Min, named Ka Min, who cultivated a rebellious blood within him, joined the communist insurgency raids against the commonwealth armies amidst the formation of the Malaysian Federation.

Fans of historical fiction will be gravitated to it already. What also makes this novel a page-turner is how the structure and medium that the plots and historical accounts were divulged to readers. The youngest generation in the story is a heroine named Therese who was raised in Canada. As a student majoring in journalism, she came to Sarawak in search of her family history told by her grandfather Liu Ka Min. In this case, she got hold of the journal about the predicament that her great-great-great-grandfather (Liu Hon Min) had gone through in his time as well as from there she found out the existing Dayak indigenous tribal blood unbeknownst to her for so many years (this unveils more plot twists in the story).

“Therese fingers the jade Buddha she is wearing, her eyes focused on the faithful replica of it in the painting, tears welling up at the sight of the little green Buddha her great-great-great-grandmother was wearing; two women traversing time and space to touch in that moment of enlightenment.”

It is not only interesting how the ancestral history is channeled through the journal while her grandfather’s is stored in a recorder, but it is also fascinating that through Therese, she is the medium of connecting the thematic elements which converge and woven altogether in the two generations to form a holistic story consisting of transcendent love, faith, reconciliation and remembrance as is conveyed in its title: “Ghost Cave”. Apart from that, the book might also ponder questions of sense of belonging and identity concerning groups of inhabitants within a territorial place or a country, which implicate many lives and still being relevant today. “The Punti will always think we Hakka have usurped their land, even though we settled here from the north several hundred years ago,” Liu Pak said. “It’s a terrible tragedy that we are fighting our own kind. We are all inhabitants of Guangdong Province. Most Punti don’t feel that way.” 

Incidentally, you can also read an anecdote of Elsie Sze’s in On Father, Ghost Cave and Ghosts: A Short Chronicle as a side-note of this novel as well!

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Wong Sarah

Making reading the essential part of my life

2 thoughts on “Ghost Cave: A Novel of Sarawak by Elsie Sze”

  1. Sarah, I just happened to come across your beautiful review of Ghost Cave: a novel of Sarawak, and am touched by your encouraging comments. Thank you. And thank you for attending my event at the Hong Kong LitFest. Best wishes.

    1. Thank you Elsie, your talk was really inspiring! I’m looking forward to reading your other books as well as the ones by Lisa See. However I would have to get into Middlemarch first, because this is one of the books I’m resolved to read this year. Thank you for the comment and with all my best wishes to your family!

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