Yangsze Choo’s THE GHOST BRIDE has been on my TBR list for a while. I really enjoyed PEONY IN LOVE and Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR. As we all know, Asian ghosts are the best/worst ghosts.
And as it turns out, I couldn’t have picked a better/worse time to read this, because it is Ghost Month!
In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
The title refers to Li Lan, the daughter of a high-ranking but destitute Chinese family in 1893 Malaysia. Though she has no prospects, the wealthy Lim family offers a marriage proposal on behalf of their son: the problem is, he’s dead. When she refuses, preferring his cousin Tian Bai, the obnoxious would-be groom begins haunting her dreams, prompting an exorcism attempt that goes horribly wrong.
I was lured by that attractive hook. Right away this book has juicy subject matter going for it. Chinese beliefs of the afterlife are famously complex, and Choo also has another rich, multifaceted source of inspiration in the diverse real-world setting of colonial Malaya. This fertile terrain overlaps in parallel worlds between the living and the dead. This is a truly hellish afterlife indeed, in which government corruption and social inequality persist even after death. Gender and class hierarchies continue to determine one’s fate, with untethered spirits dependent on their families to burn funeral money and paper offerings–servants, houses, even transportation–to use in the afterlife. But while the subject matter is inherently fascinating, credit must go to the author as well. The Chinese afterlife is so awesome it can be hard to appreciate that it’s also both nebulous and fantastically complicated. The world of THE GHOST BRIDE smartly allows for its maddening vagaries without sacrificing narrative clarity.
Choo’s blog makes the fascinating observation that, though Asian ghost stories in general are famously terrifying, Asian female ghosts tend to be the most vengeful and powerful of the bunch; she apparently almost wrote her thesis on the theory that this is the result of cultural oppression in life. Though the feminist commentary is more subtext here than in a Lisa See novel, there are still some potent explorations of gender. In some ways, our sheltered heroine actually has more freedom as a (sort-of) ghost than in her repressive patriarchal society. Is that empowering or really depressing? Both? The book doesn’t settle for a neat answer–misogyny (and sexual predators) is very much a problem even in the Plains of the Dead, and the living female characters, though oppressed, are not without agency. But ox-headed demons and sexy supernatural bureaucrats notwithstanding, the heart of this story is a classic one: a young woman with limited options in a restrictive society, who must navigate complicated questions of independence, security, and love.
THE GHOST BRIDE does a nice job capturing the fascinating weirdness of Chinese mythology. But while it’s very much a ‘strange tale’ in the long tradition of Asian ghost stories, the characters really ground it. It’s not a particularly big book, but the plot is actually pretty complex. Even with so many subplots and characters, though, it never got unwieldy. The characters, both living and dead, are memorable. The standout is Er Lang, a mysterious and maddeningly alluring spirit who helps Li Lan in her plight. But in the end, this is Li Lan’s story, and thankfully, hers is a very satisfying one.