Book #30: The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo
I chose this book for my book club after a lot of internet research. The last book I chose for the club, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, was nobody’s favorite except for mine, and I had to redeem myself. It had to be an easy read with a fast-paced storyline, and a young adult feel never hurts. This time, I didn’t want to take a chance: I wanted a crowd pleaser, and so far this book does not disappoint.
The story follows Li Lan, a young girl living with her father and her Amah, a kind of live-in nanny in Malaya. It is 1893, and a good marriage is the very highest aspiration of any girl Li Lan’s age. Although she was born into a once prominent family, her father squandered most of their fortune as he fell into an opium-filled depression after her mother died of smallpox. Their home, once filled with servants is starting to fall apart, and Li Lan’s marriage prospects dwindle as the money runs out. Li Lan’s loyal Amah stays with the family, and continues to train Li Lan to be a valuable wife to a good family. Hope for a good match flickers, then fades. Li Lan begins to ponder a life alone.
One day, the Lim family matriarch, one of the most powerful women in the town, approaches Li Lan’s father with a marriage proposition. Madam Lim suggests a most unusual arrangement: she wants Li Lan to marry her son, Lim Tian Ching, who died years before of a sudden fever. Li Lan objects strongly; her father apologetically explains that he was only joking. He is a scholar, and pays no mind to such superstitions. Amah is horrified: mentioning a ghost marriage, even in jest, is as good as inviting the ghost into your home. The moment passes, and the family continues on with their lives, scraping together coins to get by.
Li Lan tries to forget about the ghost marriage, but the unhappy ghost refuses to let her move on. Lim Tian Ching begins to visit her in her dreams, at first trying to charm her with riches. They are riches of the afterworld, and Li Lan is horrified. When she rejects his advances, Lim Tian Ching turns violent and starts to turn her waking life upside down.
What You’ll Like
- Chinese themes of the afterlife: This book is FULL of interesting customs and rituals surrounding death. For a ghost to be well provided for after death, its family must burn paper money and offerings at an altar with a “soul tablet” to distinguish who the offering is meant for. If you are never buried or cared for by your family, you are doomed to become a “hungry ghost”, one who is continually starving, wasting away with no memory of who you are. To pass through to heaven, you must be judged in Seven Courts of Hell by judges. Oxen-headed demons guard the border between heaven and hell. I found all of this completely intriguing, and loved learning about a world so different from my own.
- Li Lan’s home life: Something about the shabby home struck me as a very real picture. Her father, scarred by the smallpox that killed her mother, was emotionally scarred as well. The tragedy has seeped into every crack in the home, and the slow, steady decline of a once-full life felt very believable.
- Quick moving plot: The beginning of the book starts off a little slow, but quickly picks up. This was one of those books that almost reads itself.
What you [might] not like:
- Young adult feel: At times, Li Lan’s narration reads like a cringe-worthy teenage diary. When the boy she likes comes to visit her home, she says: “There were a hundred things I wished to say, a hundred more to ask him. But time had already run out for us. Tian Bai raised a hand to my face. I dared not breathe as he ran a finger lightly down my cheek. The look in his eyes was serious, almost intense. My face burned. I was seized by an urge to press my lips against the back of his hand, to bite the tips of his fingers, but I could only drop my eyes in confusion.” Instant eye roll.
- Hard to follow: Suddenly, Li Lan was in a totally foreign spirit world, and although things were explained in a lot of detail, I didn’t feel like I understood what was happening all the time or who all the characters were. It was just a lot at once.
- Simplified ending: You know in Disney movies, how the beautiful princess suddenly finds her prince, and in a matter of days they’re married? That’s a little like the ending of this book. You’re left kind of thinking…”How?” When I read, I am constantly looking for authenticity and stories/characters that ring true to me. The love story of this book fell a little bit short.
All in all, an entertaining book and interesting read. I think my book club will like it! We’re picking up some Panda Express takeout to go with the Chinese theme of the book. I know, super authentic.