I’ve been away a while. Instead of boring you with the details, let’s just get back into reviewing.
I’m not sure where exactly I heard of this book. I know I saw it on some website, under a list of recommended books-to-read page, but I can’t seem to remember the specific website. Anywho, I managed to note down the book and picked it up.
Basically, The Ghost Bride is about the main character, Pan Li Lan. The story is set in the 1890’s, in the British colony of Malaya (present day Malaysia). Li Lan, is a young Chinese woman from a formerly rich, but now impoverished family. Her mother died when she was young, and her father, depressed by the loss of his wife and by the loss of his looks from smallpox, squandered away the family’s savings. Raised alone by both her father and ayah (formerly her mother’s ayah), and secluded from society (due to her father’s depression and their lack of money), she grew up sheltered; more interested in learning about things like calligraphy and maps rather than how to be a wife. However, her world is taken for a spin when her father receives a proposal for her from the rich Lim family. The proposal, it turns out, is actually for Li Lan to become a ghost bride. Apparently in Chinese folklore, sometimes young women would entered into ghost marriages. The groom would be dead, with a rooster being substituted for the ceremony. These marriages were often done to soothe the recently dead spirit and were often performed when both parties were dead, or when both parties loved each other. In Li Lan’s case, she is offered to become the bride of the recently decease sole son of the Lim family because apparently he loved her (she never met him before). Of course she refuses. However, somehow, the deceased son, Lim Tian Ching starts entering her dreams and begins terrorizing her, under the guise of wooing her. Li Lan is understandably horrified and does not know what to do.
She does not tell her father as he does not believe in such superstitions and does not tell her Ayah, at least not at first, because she doesn’t want to worry her Ayah, who is a superstitious woman. However, as the dreams continue in their intensity, she finally breaks and tells her Ayah. Her Ayah understands and takes her to a medium. The medium also understands and gives Li Lan some powder that causes sleeps and prevents spirits from entering the dreams of others.
Meanwhile, during this, Li Lan also starts becoming enamoured with the next heir of the Lim family, Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai who is also interested in her. It turns out, Li Lan and Tian Bai were actually betrothed to be married. However, with Tian Ching’s death, as Tian Bai is now the heir of the rich Lim family, the betrothal is broken off as the first son of a rich family cannot marry a penniless woman (which is what Li Lan technically is due to her father squandering their money). Furthermore, as the Lim family wants her as a ghost bride for the former heir, their alliance seems even more unlikely. This is further confirmed when talks of Tian Bai’s marriage are begun with another family.
Unable to take the sorrow and pressure of a) Tian Ching’s haunting of her dreams b) the ghost bride proposal c) her broken alliance with Tian Bai and d) the fact that as a penniless woman, she is unlikely to have more suitors, in a fit of frustration, she drinks all of the powder the medium prescribed her. This causes her to fall into some sort of twilight sleep, where her body sleeps and her spirit detaches from her physical body. As a result, Li Lan is able to enter the afterworld as well.
In the book, the afterlife has its own world. There is a border between the living and the dead and other places of the dead, that are guarded by border guards (who have the faces of oxen). When people die, if they have unfinished business, they tend to wander the living world. However, eventually they must go to the gateways of the Courts of Judgement where there at 9 judges that decide whether a person will go to Heaven, reincarnate, or be punished in hell. However, there is also a place called the Plains of the Dead for human ghosts. In the plains of the dead, human ghosts are able to survive, based on what their families sacrifice for them. From my understanding, when people die, the family offer sacrifices such as food and clothing to the Dead to sustain them and in this case, if the deceased is still human but doesn’t have any unfinished business, or has made a deal with a demon, or their judgement date hasn’t arrived, they can live with their things (that their family offered for them). To be completely honest, I’m not quite sure how it functions. The author, Yangsze Choo, actually put a disclaimer in the book saying that the Plains of the Dead were actually her own creation. Or rather, there was some mentions of them, but their place wasn’t clear, so she created a clearer connection between the Plains of the Dead and traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife. Furthermore, the afterlife also sort of functions as a general economy — much like the world of the living. Currency goes a long way and can be used to purchase things in the Plains of the Dead. Plus there’s even a government of sort that guards the Courts of Hell to ensure that the system isn’t abused (i.e. ghosts aren’t just crossing back and forth between the plane of the living to the afterlife — the guards are there for this purpose too).
Anyways, it turns out that Tian Ching has been somehow able to corrupt some of the border guards as there is a corrupted judge on the Court of Judgement. As a result, he is able to travel freely throughout the worlds and even receive protection from them. His underhanded dealings are also what enable him to spy and enter Li Lan’s dreams and attempt to marry her. An afterlife government official, Er Lang, knows that Tian Ching has been doing illegal activities, along with the general deceased Lim family in the afterlife. However, he has been unable to gather any solid proof as he is unable to enter the Plains of the Dead on his own — where the deceased Lim family lives comfortable. Li Lan, in her state of being half-alive and half-dead, comes across Er Lang and the conspiracy with Tian Ching. Er Lang recruits her to spy for him on Lim’s family in the Plains of the Dead. Li Lan also agrees to this as she believes that if she can expose Tian Ching, she’ll be free of his torment and no longer be pursued by him. She also has the ulterior motive of entering the Plains of the Dead to see if she can meet her mother. Her mother died when she was young, during the same time time her father’s face was marred by smallpox.
However, the deeper Li Lan enters the afterlife, the more her connection with her body in the world of the living is affected. If Li Lan wanders too far and her body dies, her spirit will just wander and eventually shrivel up. Mindful of this, but also intensely determined, she continues her journey. Along the way, she finds out about the connection her family has with the Lim family, meets her mother, discovers the deadly legacy of the Lim family, and becomes closer to Er Lang. The rest of the book deals with her journey, her thoughts and her final decisions.
In terms of writing, I really enjoyed the book. It was written in a relatively easy to understand way. It employed a couple of cliches and scenes. But I think that was to be expected as the afterlife has some common elements in all cultures. Plus, the cliches weren’t too bad or abundant. Furthermore, I really enjoyed the world-building. It was written in a very vidid way and I enjoyed imagining all the fantasy and history elements. That said, it did get a little confusing at times. I had to reread passages sometimes because it was very easy to get caught up in all the descriptions of the world and the actions happening.
On that note, I think the book itself was very interesting. Not just in terms of story, which I actually very much enjoyed, but it terms of the way it was written. The first half the of the novel is far more historical than fantastical. Hence, it was quite evident that this was a really well researched book. Yangsze Choo definitely took the time to research about British Malaya and the history of the Malaya federation, even when under the Dutch. But as a result, it’s also a little more slow. Things don’t really pick up until the second half of the novel. However, the second half of the novel is also more fantastical than historical and moves a lot quicker. A lot of stuff happens and a lot of secrets are uncovered. Yet, I actually enjoyed both halves of the book. The first half felt like a nice leisurely stroll through historical Malaya and Chinese folklore while the second half felt more like a fast walking adventure through fantasy and Chinese folklore. Basically, Chinese folklore was embedded throughout the novel and I think it helped the book feel like a cohesive story, rather than two separate ones.
Finally, I also enjoyed the character of Li Lan and others. While I wouldn’t characterize her as the most interesting character I’ve read about, she was decently entertaining. I didn’t really love her all that much all the time. However, she did have quite a few likeable moments. Similarly, I also really liked the side characters and I kind of wish there was more information on them. The bulk of the story was from Li Lan’s point of view so we really didn’t get too much into the details of other characters – aside from their looks and dialogues. I especially liked Er Lang and wanted to know more about him. In general, when the book ended, I was a teeny tiny bit let down because I wanted the story continue and see what happened next. Nonetheless, the ending made sense, as did where and why Yangsze Choo chose to end where she did.
My rating: read it to delve into some intriguing Chinese folklore and to enjoy a fantastical and (low-key) suspenseful coming of age story!