Monday, December 9, 2013

Review of Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

"One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride."

Thus begins 17-year-old Pan Li Lan's charming and unlikely narration in Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride (Morrow/HarperCollins, August 6, 2013). The British rule Malaya in 1893, but Li Lan's family still follows Chinese traditions. The Chinese practice of arranging marriage between the dead is uncommon and usually done to placate their lonely spirits and create ties between living families who will give them offerings in the afterlife. To marry a living person to the dead is rare, and, in Li Lan's opinion, a horrible idea.

The Lim family, one of the wealthiest households in the port city of Malacca, Malaya, had put the idea to Li Lan's father. Their only son, Lim Tian Ching, had died unexpectedly several months earlier. Li Lan's family used to be quite rich but now they are barely clinging to middle-class respectability. The smallpox that killed Li Lan's mother badly scarred her father. He withdrew into his books and opium and let outsiders run his business into the ground. His apathy now threatens to squander his lovely daughter's future. If Li Lan doesn't marry, she'll fall into poverty, without even the respect that motherhood brings. This marriage to the dead Lim Tian Ching could be a solution.

Offerings are burned for the dead in the Ghost Festival
Li Lan receives an invitation to play mahjong at the Lims' opulent home and she goes accompanied by her amah. There, Li Lan is smitten by Tian Bai, Lim Tian Ching's cousin and the rightful heir to the Lim family fortune. Tian Bai seems to return her interest, though Li Lan later hears rumors that his marriage has been arranged.

That night, Lim Tian Ching, whose death has done nothing to make him more attractive, begins haunting Li Lan in her dreams. Like his family, Lim Tian Ching becomes increasingly insistent that she become his bride. He also tells her that Tian Bai murdered him.

Malacca buildings in the Plains of the
Dead are either gaudy or missing completely

After Li Lan becomes ill, she wanders through Malacca unaccompanied and mostly unseen, and enters the Plains of the Dead, an interim place between the world of the living and the strictly governed Courts of Hell. It's a spellbinding place with odd characters and peculiar parallels to life on earth, designed by writer Choo with elements of Buddhism (to tie it to reincarnation), Taoism, ancestor worship and folk beliefs. With the help of a mysterious guide, Er Land, Li Lan seeks to learn the truth about Lim Tian Ching and her own family, before it's too late to return to the world of the living.

Li Lan in the Plains of the Dead
Her spunk and persistence are a credit to her hero, Ming Dynasty explorer Cheng Ho. In colonial Malacca, Li Lan is admired because she's kind and as beautiful as a butterfly but she chafes at her restricted world as a young Chinese woman. I was enchanted by Li Lan's suspenseful journey, in which she also learns her own mind.

Yangsze Choo (photo by James Cham)
Choo's Malacca and Plains of the Dead are a feast for the senses in their details of food, clothing, history, customs and folklore. The characters are fascinating in their familial hierarchies (multiple wives and concubines, amahs and servants) and their beliefs. Li Lan's father holds Confucian ideas about man's place in the universe, while Amah and Old Wong, the cook, believe in immortality, shape-changing and magic potions.

People who can see ghosts are tainted and don't fit in. Superstitions about ghosts leave many people unwilling to visit Bukit China, the largest cemetery outside China, except during the Festival of the Dead, Qing Ming. Then, offerings are burned to ward off evil spirits and to offer aid to the dead, lest they become hungry ghosts, without the means to navigate through the Courts of Hell on their way to rebirth, doomed to wander forever.

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