Book Review: Mahsuri by Ooi Kok Chuen

MahsuriFirst published in The Star on 31st July, 2016

IN Mahsuri: A Legend Reborn, Ooi Kok Chuen expands on the legend of Langkawi’s famous icon who was supposed to have cursed the island during her execution for adultery. My ex-husband, whom I met in Langkawi 20 years ago, says that the curse actually involves anyone who visits Langkawi being doomed to listen to Mahsuri’s story being repeated, ad nauseum, by all and sundry. I have to agree that it really gets milked to death and would benefit from some skilful re-telling.

Preeta Samarasan, the author of Evening is the Whole Day, actually wrote a compelling version of the tale for my collection Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, but I feel the story, like this region’s other fairytales, myths and legends, offers Malaysian writers endless scope for fresh interpretations, and its potential has not been maximised.

Such stories have usually survived generations stripped down to the barest, most basic of plots, their key players little more than cardboard figures just crying out to be fleshed out and reimagined.  

What do we know of Mahsuri apart from her beauty and chastity? How did she feel, a young wife whose warrior husband had left to fight the Siamese? Did she have friends? What did she hope for and dream about? As a member of a conservative community, why was she so foolish as to spend time alone with a man when her husband was away? Was it loneliness or lust that drove her to such unreasonable behaviour, or was she so innocent and naïve as to believe that no one would think the worst of her?

I was looking forward to reading Ooi’s novel, which I hoped would answer at least some of my questions, and perhaps pose and explore others. Unfortunately, Mahsuri: A Legend Reborn is a disappointment, at least to me.

The title suggests that Mahsuri, the woman, is central to the story; that she is its main character. She isn’t. The plot does not revolve around her, and the novel reveals not much more than what we can glean from Wikipedia’s entry for Langkawi’s most famous daughter.

Much is made about Mahsuri’s good looks (“fair and well-formed supple cleavage” etc), her piety and her interest in herbal remedies, but we never learn about her desires and motives, her fears and her weaknesses. Throughout the book, she remains a distant, idealised figure, not a flesh and blood woman capable of making mistakes and having doubts. She is never more than a legend, and I never found her real at any point. In fact, my impression is that the author was unable to get under her skin, or perhaps never intended to in the first place.

Sadly, when it comes to the female characters in Mahsuri, Ooi’s focus seems to skim the surface, emphasising physical appearance, whether attractive or otherwise.

His male characters fare somewhat better, and indeed, it might have been a better idea to call the novel Ma Xing, after the young Chinese explorer (a descendant of Admiral Cheng Ho) who time travels to 18th century Langkawi from 17th century Malacca. He is a much better portrayed, more interesting, and complexly drawn character than Mahsuri. However, there is no rhyme or reason for the time slip, and Ma Xing seems to serve no purpose other than to be Mahsuri’s BFF and the co-respondent in her supposed indiscretion.

In my opinion, the real reason Ma Xing was created and had to be from a different time was so he could share information about Imperial China and the Malaccan sultanate, with Mahsuri, but mainly the reader. Unfortunately, this book is really one big information dump – everything from cultural customs to religious beliefs to historical facts are unloaded, willy nilly, on the reader, and a lot of it is of no relevance to plot or character development.

Another thing that irritated me was the omniscient narrator’s use of anachronistic metaphors and similes. So, there are references to Barbie, Viagra and Popeye, among others, in an 18th century setting. The effect is jarring, and the impression it leaves is of carelessness.

I really wanted to like this book, but I think the author didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve, and probably didn’t have an editor or even an experienced beta reader to advise him, or give him honest feedback. As a result, Mahsuri is a mess. It is neither plot- nor character-driven, and actually, there is no plot to speak of, just a series of events that feature recurring characters whom the reader doesn’t get to know or connect with.

I enjoyed reading about the different sites in Langkawi, which are now tourist attractions, but serve as settings for the book’s various (melo)dramatic scenes. I also found the historical and cultural details interesting. All this made me wonder if Ooi should have written a non-fiction account of the island (and the legend) instead.

Daphne Lee is currently re-visiting a whole lot of books by dead white women, and is trying to decide on her next local read. 




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