A New Singaporean Ghost Story
Plot-driven novel offers an uncomplicated good time
By Kristina Tom
The Formidable Miss Cassidy
Meihan Boey's debut novel is an entertaining, plot-driven adventure that boasts a delicious rojak of influences from literature, folklore and pop culture. The titular and most certainly formidable Miss Cassidy is a Scottish governess who arrives in 1895 on the docks of Collyer Quay to serve as a female companion to Captain James Bendemeer's only surviving child Sarah Jane.
At first, her brisk practicality and all-encompassing competence evoke other familiar figures such as Mary Poppins or Anna from The King and I – especially upon the introduction of an appropriately chaste and slow-burning love interest in the form of the almost-as-formidable businessman and droll widower Mr Kay Wing Tong.
Soon enough, however, the haunted history and forbidding nature of Bendemeer House seem to place Miss Cassidy more specifically into the gothic governess-protagonist tradition of say, Jane Eyre. But any allusions to famously talented nannies, or colonial or Victorian gothic literature as told through the eyes of a white, and in this case female, protagonist recede as we are introduced to Miss Cassidy's real skillset: her otherworldly knowledge and powers.
As Miss Cassidy marshals these abilities to save her employers from the insidious influence of a Pontianak, the novel embraces a more than superficial homage to the best of Singaporean ghost stories, with the titles of the book's three parts: 'The Bendemeer House Pontianak', 'The Curse of Pandan Villa' and 'The Schoolhouse Seance' – seemingly ripped from the pages of Russell Lee's long-running series True Singapore Ghost Stories.
But in true colonial (and post-colonial) Singapore fashion, the number of cultural and mythical references continue to accrue at a relentless pace, as Miss Cassidy's run-ins with the supernatural call upon a headily japalang collection of world folklore, from tree ghosts and a Malay bomoh to the Celtic Sidhe and the ancient Greek sea creature Scylla. The action – largely supernatural – is nonstop, especially once we realise that Miss Cassidy isn't the only one with otherworldly powers. This is enough to keep Miss Cassidy a diverting and at times compelling read, although the book isn't immune to a few missteps that we might chalk up to this being the writer's first full-length novel.
Boey's 2019 science fiction novella The Messiah Virus and her previous comics more than prepared her for Miss Cassidy's catchall sampling of various mythologies in the service of action, a well-trod approach in the comic and speculative fiction genres and, more specifically, in Neil Gaiman's work, which Boey explicitly mentions as a source of inspiration in the acknowledgements. But although the solidly paced action and cross-genre take on historical Singapore clearly earned Boey her well-deserved 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, these are not quite enough to save the novel completely from its flaws. The novel's structure, composed of three main parts, doesn't quite come together. Parts One and Two read like two separate novellas, the first meant to introduce us to Miss Cassidy and her surroundings, and the second to develop the burgeoning relationship between Miss Cassidy and Mr Kay against the much larger backdrop of more ghostly happenings at the latter's Pandan Villa estate. An even stranger choice of narration happens near the beginning of the novel, which switches abruptly mid-chapter to Mr Kay's point-of-view, an odd interruption in Miss Cassidy's narration which doesn't happen again in any significant way for another couple hundred pages, when we arrive at the rather truncated Part Three, a curiously short section that serves as an abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying denouement to the hinted at but not quite fulfilled love story.
Most disappointingly of all, despite the delightfully far-reaching yet determinedly Singaporean use of mythology, the treatment of these myths seems fairly superficial and without much further aspiration than to throw a knowing wink and nod at the attentive allusion-counting reader. Ultimately, the novel sacrifices character and thematic development for plot. But perhaps this critique misses the point of the novel, which is to offer an uncomplicated but lovingly crafted good time. It certainly does.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022