There’s always something special about discovering a new book at the library or in the store, a book that instantly grabs your attention and demands to be read. This is what happened when I recently stumbled upon Yangsze Choo‘s debut novel, The Ghost Bride.
On first glance, I assumed The Ghost Bride would be something spooky and supernatural. I’m a big fan of horror films, and especially anything relating to ghosts; conversely, I also love historical fiction and learning about past times and places. Set in 1893, this novel seemed to fill two interests at once.
The final selling point, for me, was its setting in Malaysia. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read many books about Asian characters or by Asian authors. I loved reading Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy last summer, though, and was eager to explore more of the region. One of my close friends from college is Malaysian, and upon gleaning where The Ghost Bride takes place, I was excited to get to know her country a little bit more.
The novel opens with Li Lan, a young woman from a once-prosperous family. Her mother passed away when she was young, and father has since developed an addiction to opium. They are bankrupt, leaving Li Lan with little hope of a good marriage. But one day she is presented with an opportunity to marry into a wealthy family. The only catch is that her groom, Lim Tian Ching, is already dead. She’d be a ghost bride, meant to placate his restless spirit. But Li Lan doesn’t want to marry a dead man and live with his unnerving family. How could she accept such a life?
But the restless spirit is stubborn, and Lim Tian Ching is haunting Li Lan. One fateful day, Li Lan’s spirit leaves her body and can’t get back in. Li Lan’s body is comatose, leaving her father and Amah (nanny/maid) worried sick, and her soul is left to wander the world, lost and trapped where she doesn’t belong.
Li Lan meets a series of characters, including a minor deity named Er Lang and the ghost of a long-dead young woman named Fan. She learns she must travel to the Chinese afterlife – going through the Plains of the Dead – where she will meet the ghosts of her own ancestors and those of Lim Tian Ching. If she doesn’t uncover the truth and find out how to rejoin her body, she’ll be stuck as a ghost forever.
The hell world incredible and spooky, but also surprisingly similar to real life. The ghosts carry on as they would in the world of the living, residing in homes and performing work and chores. Hierarchies are as important as ever, as are family secrets. Li Lan discovers a lot while there, but she also finds herself in grave danger – from the other ghosts who don’t know her true identity, but also in the race against time to return to her body. Some of her supernatural acquaintances end up making her quest far more difficult; others rise up to help her overcome the odds.
The novel’s ever-changing landscape and its diverse cast of characters, as well as its propulsive plot, keep the story moving along at a thrilling pace. It’s at once magical and evocative, eerie and dark, action-packed and riveting.
Despite imagining a very clear story based on its summary, The Ghost Bride ended up being completely unexpected and infinitely better than what I had dreamed up. It’s not a straightforward ghost story, nor as soft or slow-moving as I might have anticipated. It plays more like a fantasy adventure into the underworld. Due to the writing style and young characters, it would probably work well as a YA novel, though I found it in general adult fiction; in any case, it can comfortably appeal to both age groups.
I’m glad to have kicked off 2018 with such a surprising and unique novel. The Ghost Bride is a wonderful debut, and I will absolutely be reading more from Yangsze Choo as she publishes more books.