[Review] Shadow Play by Barbara Ismail

Author: Barbara Ismail
ISBN: 9814358681
Price: RM30, depending on where you buy it from
Rating: 5/10
TL;DR: Good to while away an afternoon, but don’t expect it to linger


Tourists may picture it as a picturesque, quaint state, bordered by the sea, with the bustling Pasar Besar (main market) being the center of it all. The women of Kelantan, it is said, are among the fiercest in the land. After all, they are known for producing not one, but two Malay queens, the only ones named for ruling solo. It is a state buried in mysticism, ruled by a theocratic political party. Part of its heritage include the famous wayang kulit or Shadow Play in English (though the direct translation actually means skin theatre).

So a mystery book with wayang kulit as its backdrop struck me as a must-read. It has a simple premise; a murder happens on Makcik Maryam’s land, and rather than leave it to the naive and innocent police chief to handle it, she decides to “offer” her assistance into solving the case, as people were more inclined to talk to a makcik than a uniformed officer.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

However, it’s fiendishly difficult to pull off. And to be fair to the author, she tried, but it doesn’t quite pay off as well as it could. I suspect that if I had not been a Malaysian, I may have enjoyed the story more. It has an engaging style and snippets of facts I enjoy. However, I have a lot of issues with the plot, pacing and the characters.

For one, most of the characters read as caricatures.

Makcik Maryam and Rubiah, her cousin, read as a pair of insufferable aunties off on an adventure, full of themselves and their perceived self-importance. Osman, the poor policeman, seems to be a completely lost at sea boy; I highly doubt his superiors would have thrown such a greenhorn into being a police chief.  

Out of all the characters, I found Zurainah and her husband Ariffin, to be to my liking the most. They were, I think, the most fleshed out. At least they seemed to have real motives and different “facets” of their personalities revealed throughout the story. The rest of them, even Pak Dollah, remained simplistic and straightforward.

Plot wise, for a book titled “Shadow Play” I expected more insights into how shadow play is performed, the actual rituals performed and the audiences’ reaction. There’s none of that here. The most we glimpse is the backstage and how the players slept. While the twist was unexpected, I found myself not really caring what happens to the characters, but continued reading just to see what happens in the end.

Also, the author makes a point every so often to point out that Kelantanese Malay (or East Coast Malay in general) is far different from the ones spoke on the West Coast. It would have been better if she had thrown in a few examples to illustrate these differences. This, however, I concede is very much a personal preference. Most of the Malay written (not including the peribahasa aka proverbs) were written in formal Malay. Don’t tell me that they spoke in guttural tones, show that they did!

Shadow Play is the first of the Kain Songket mysteries. There are two more books; Princess Play and Spirit Tiger. I will probably give Princess Play a read before deciding on whether to follow the series.

Would I recommend this? Only if you are looking for an afternoon read while sitting in an airconditioned place. One of the things I enjoyed about this book was that it brought the heat of the East Coast to life, so I wouldn’t recommend reading this in a warm place.