Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin


About Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin*: A classic from National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin, Cave and Shadows was first published in 1983, and this literary whodunit is still considered a must-read by students of Philippine Literature. The novel is set in motion by a mysterious death, and thrust onwards by the search for truth and the solution of the crime. Joaquin expertly weaves multi-layered meanings by interspersing Philippine historical fact with fiction. In the end, readers discover faith, truth, and human nature.

My two cents

I've only read Joaquin's short stories and have gotten a feel for how he melds Philippines folklore with history. This novel explores both, surprisingly within a political and religious whodunit.

The story opens rather surreally with protagonist Jack Henson in his hotel. Is he hallucinating when he sees a a naked girl walking by with a crab on leash? The weirdness continues as Henson's true mission is revealed: he wants to find out what really happened in a young woman's death in a cave that has a reputation for the mystical.

At the risk of making this convoluted, I wondered at how this whodunit unravelled as it takes one from pagan folklore, to religious fanaticism, to political vengeance, then is dashed with some romance, seeped in Filipino cultural references, and a lot of nationalism. It's a highly unusual and a packed book.

I liked

There is a lot going on, I admit, and at times I wondered where all this was going. Somehow it comes together quite nicely. You can never get bored.

Just how Filipino this is! I can't help but admire that Joaquin awakens a fierce sense of pride in the Filipino identity with his writing. If you're Filipino, I urge you to read this novel. I can see why this is recommended reading for Philippine literature. If you're not Filipino, then I urge you moreso to dip your toes into Philippine lit via this novel; at the least you'll be intrigued and appreciate the cultural richness of this novel. 

The exploration of religion figures quite heavily. There is paganism which was the dominant pre-colonial religion, then the heavy Roman Catholic influence under Spanish rule. This is then overlaid with the folklore and mythology which crosses over between pre-colonial and Catholicism; these little substories are woven into the plot which I thoroughly enjoyed, giving this novel such an otherwordly feel.

The whodunit wasn't as predictable as I expected it to be since there were shades of the supernatural that made me second guess myself.


The romance parts were slightly sappy but I kept reminding myself that this was written in the 1970s and Filipinos are apt to melodrama. I didn't quite like the dialogues which leaned towards slightly corny, and at the worst preachy (I remember rolling my eyes at one point because a certain line exasperated me).

Verdict: A worthy Filipino read which captures the intriguing worlds of pagan and Catholic religiosity in a nationalist whodunit. Enter the cave and discover it for yourself.

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