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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yangsze Choo: "The Ghost Bride"

Author:  Yangsze Choo
Title:  The Ghost Bride   
Plot Type:  A mix of romance, historical fiction, and fantasy
Ratings:  V3; S2; H3  
Publisher:  William Morrow/HarperCollins (8/2013)

             WORLD-BUILDING AND STRUCTURE             
     The novel is set in late-nineteenth century Malacca, a British colony in  Malaya (now Malaysia). Malacca's wealthy citizens are a mix of British and Dutch colonials and Malay merchants, and the poor are an even more diverse mix of native and foreign cultures. 

     At the heart of the novel are ancient Chinese religious traditions relating to death and the Afterworld, which is an otherworldly place with a bureaucratic hierarchy similar to that of real-life Malaya, and just as corrupt. At the end of the book, the author includes a Notes section (p. 355) with brief discussions of ghost marriages, Chinese notions of the afterlife, Malay, Chinese migrants to SE Asia, and Chinese names and dialects. I highly recommend reading that section before you read the novel (I wish I had). 

     Here are a few pertinent details about this world that are critical to understanding the story: In this world, when a person dies, his or her relatives burn paper and wood items, including cardboard or wooden people and animals, pictures of clothing, and Hell dollars (funeral money printed specifically for the dead). As these items are burned, they reappear in the dead person's possession in the Afterworld, so the more items that are burned, the wealthier that person will be and the more influence he or she will have with the Afterworld bureaucracy.

     In this book, the author has put a twist on the usual folklore: When a person dies, he or she goes first to the Plains of the Dead for a short time, but then must appear in the Courts of Hell before the Nine Judges of Hell, who review the person's mortal ethical and moral record and decide where he/she will go next on the path to eventual reincarnation. That next stop could be very good...or very bad, depending solely on the ruling of the Judges (who are just as corrupt and open to bribes as judges on mortal earth). Here, one of the characters explains: "The authorities can be bribed to extend all sorts of privileges. Don't you know that this part of the afterlife is ruled by the judges of hell? Before entering the courts for judgment and reincarnation, there's a place called the Plains of the Dead, where you're allowed to enjoy the funeral offerings that your family burned for you. It's only for human ghosts, though; you can't stay forever." (p. 120)

     The book is divided into four parts: Part 1 could be mistaken for a straightforward historical novel, and this part of the story (the first third of the book) sometimes moves at a glacial pace. But keep reading; I promise that when Li Lan enters the Afterworld in Part 2, the action picks up and becomes quite fantastical. Part 3 takes Li Lan to the Plains of the Dead, which one character describes as "merely the very tail end of living." (p. 126), Part 4 follows her back to Malacca in the mortal world for the book's final scenes of resolution.      

            THE STORY             
     As the only daughter of a genteel but increasingly impoverished family, Li Lan is approaching her eighteenth birthday with no marriage prospects and facing a future of barren spinsterhood. Li Lan's father, once a wealthy man, became addicted to opium and solitude after his wife died from smallpox when Li Lan was just a child. The novel's first sentence sets up the story: "One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride." The ghost is Lim Tian Ching, the spoiled and arrogant son of a wealthy family who recently died, apparently from a fever. Lim Tian Ching's father has approached Li Lan's father about a possible marriage, but Li Lan is so horrified by the prospect that her father does not pursue it. Almost immediately, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt Li Lan's dreams, possessively and angrily vowing that she will marry himthat she is owed to him after he completes a mysterious task (which he refuses to explain). Each night the nightmares get worse, until Amah, Li Lan's elderly nanny, finally takes her to a medium, who gives her a powerful medicine to keep Lim Tian Ching out of her dreams. 

     In the meantime, Li Lan learns to her surprise that she has been promised in marriage to Lim Tian Ching's cousin, Tian Bai, ever since she was a child. When she is invited by Lim Tian Ching's mother to visit their palatial mansion, she meets Tian Bai and is immediately attracted to him. Li Lan eagerly awaits word that their marriage agreement is still in effect, but her hopes are dashed when she learns that since Tian Bai is now the heir, he cannot marry a penniless girl like herself. That's when she overdoses on the medium's medicine and falls into a coma that allows her spirit body to break free of her physical body and roam the Afterworld, eventually gaining access to the Plains of the Dead.

    Another major character enters the story at this point: Er Lang, a mysterious man who always wears a huge hat that hides his face. Li Lan doesn't know exactly who (or what) he is, but he is obviously very powerful and not completely human. Er Lang promises to help Li Lan if she will assist him in spying on Lim Tian Ching, who is suspected of being involved in some illegal and treasonous actions in the Afterworld.

     The rest of the story follows Li Lan as she and a former concubine named Fan (now a ghost) enter the Plains of the Dead, where Li Lan learns all sorts of information about Lim Tian Ching's activities and about her own family's deepest secrets. Although she finds herself in danger several times, she is usually able to outwit her enemies.   

     Li Lan is a feisty, intelligent, courageous, and passionate heroine who tells her story in an articulate and amusing first-person voice. When she begins her ghostly journey, her goals are to stop Lim Tian Ching from interfering with her life, to marry Tian Bai, and to lead a happy and fruitful life with him. Those goals change, however, as Li Lan finds herself irrevocably altered by events that occur during her time in the Afterworld. One of the key elements in the story is time. For example, Tian Bai's love of clocks is the reason for their first meeting, and he gifts Li Lan with a pocket watch that forms a critical connection between the two of them. Bearing out that theme, the author has constructed her plot with clockwork precision, synthesizing story threads neatly and concisely and keeping the plot ticking along at a steady pace. As the plot advances, it maneuvers through a series of complex twists and turns that challenge the reader's imagination. Every time you think you know what's going to happen're wrong, and each twist in the plot is even better than the one you anticipated. This is a terrific book, with engaging characters, compelling action, well-drawn world-building, and graceful language (e.g., "He slipped through the gate like a drop of spilled ink..." p. 232) Li Lan's story is ultimately a coming-of-age tale that mixes ghostly mystery and romance with gothic elements (i.e., virginal heroine; mysterious, handsome hero; malevolent, self-destructive villain; gloomy setting; an atmosphere of horror and dread; a world of deterioration and decay). The cultural elements of Chinese folklore and, to a lesser extent, British colonialism, add an exotic touch.

     If you are looking for an inventive well-plotted book with a different take on fantasy fiction, this book might just fill the bill, particularly if you enjoyed Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter and Lisa See's Peony in Love.

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