TITLE: The Ghost Bride
AUTHOR: Yangsze Choo
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical, Mythology and Folklore, Romance
PUBLISHED: August 5, 2014
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
When I first encountered Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, I did so not knowing it was YA. Set in 1800s Malacca, it follows the story of Li Lan, the daughter of a formerly wealthy family that has fallen on hard times since Li Lan’s mother passed away from smallpox. Despite her family’s respectable reputation, their distinct lack of wealth means that Li Lan’s chances of getting married are slim.
All of that changes, however, when the Lim family offers to take Li Lan on as a ghost bride for the family’s recently-dead heir. Should Li Lan accept, she will be welcomed into the Lim household and treated with the same respect due to the heir’s widow. She is guaranteed a life of comfort and luxury for the rest of her days.
But things are not quite right. Ghosts are not the only thing that haunt the Lim family, and as Li Lan finds herself drifting into the spirit world at night, she begins to unravel the secrets behind not just the Lim heir’s death, but the mysterious events that laid her own family low. Both things are connected, and if Li Lan wants to avoid a fate worse than death, she must get to the bottom of it before her time runs out.
As I said earlier, when I picked this novel up, I did not know it was YA, since nothing in the blurb told me it was so. It was only after I started reading it for the small online book club I have going with my friends that I realised the book is, in fact, a YA story. By the time I realised that, though, I hardly minded. I found the setting intriguing: a glimpse into the customs and culture of the Straits Chinese in Malacca – and even better, focusing on a custom I had never really heard of before. Given what I knew of ghost marriages at the time, and given that the protagonist was a woman, I thought it would be a historical horror novel of some sort, weaving eerie supernatural horrors with the very real horrors of a rigid, patriarchal society where women had difficulty escaping the fates they were consigned to – if they escaped at all. In short, I thought it would be the kind of horror story I usually prefer, which is why I was rather eager to read about it in the first place.
But that is not what The Ghost Bride is about – at least, not in the way I thought it would be. Instead, it is the kind of story that, under any other circumstance, I would have avoided.
I will begin with Li Lan. At first, I found her endearing: quiet and not very social, a bit of a studious homebody who could discuss poetry with her father but lacking any solid homemaking skills. She reminded me a little bit of Belle from Disney’s, Beauty and the Beast: definitely a bonus, given that Belle was the first Disney Princess I really favoured. Her quiet, more introverted nature also appealed to me, given that I share those traits myself.
But as the story progressed I gradually noticed that she possessed some traits that I did not particularly like. I benoticenoticed how childish Li Lan was – not child-like, which would have been rather endearing, but childish. She might not have grown up spoiled, to be sure, but she could be terribly selfish, prone to wild mood swings that I did not particularly appreciate. Take this scene, for example:
… Thinking of him, of [her] pressing [her] lips to his, made my blood boil. I was so angry that I almost wished he were, indeed, a murderer. Serve her right if he strangled her! But such thoughts filled me with guilt. Amah was always wary of voicing misfortunes, fearing that to do so would only make them come true. I told myself that I didn’t believe such superstitions, though in any case, almost everything could have gone wrong in my situation. … Surely I could trust [him]. His surprise had been so reasonable, so plausible, that I should stop doubting him.
… “Did you bring me a present?”
[He] produced a pink paper packet from his pocket with an indulgent smile. She tore it open, squealing, “A gold necklace!”
I was so overcome with jealousy that my vision clouded. Didn’t [he] notice that she wasn’t me? How could he be such a fool! ...
Since I have eliminated names to prevent spoilers, I find it necessary to clarify that in the above scene, Li Lan is a spirit and is watching as another spirit, inhabiting her body and pretending to be her, seduces her beau, who has no clue what is really going on and assumes that the Li Lan he is interacting with is really Li Lan. But what is important to note here is how childishly Li Lan reacts to what is happening in front of her. Note the wild swings of opinion: at first, she claims she trusts her beau but then not a moment later she declares him a fool for not noticing that the Li Lan he is speaking to is not really her – which is silly because, really, how could he possibly know the difference?
Even more annoying is this focus on romantic attachments, which follows Li Lan like a bad smell throughout the course of the novel. Li Lan’s thoughts roam across a whole host of various topics, but she does tend to linger on romantic sentiments and petty jealousies. As I keep saying elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with such storylines, or even such sentiments, and I do find them enjoyable when they are well-handled. The key term there, of course, is “well-handled.” Unfortunately, in this novel, the romantic threads are patently not handled well since they practically dominate the story, often shoehorned into more interesting plot threads; specifically, what is really going on with the Lim family, and what it all has to do with Li Lan’s family.
Equally interesting are the other, underlying themes of the kind that normally pique my interest, such as the references made to the grossly unequal status gap between men and women, as the following excerpt shows:
… If I were a man and found a serving girl who pleased me, no one would stop me from buying her if she was indentured. Men did so every day, It was far more difficult for women. There were stories of unfaithful concubines who had been strangled, and who’d had their ears and noses sliced off and were then left to roam the streets as beggars. …
In a society where a living man could take a pretty serving girl into his household as a concubine without any consideration for the protestations of his wife (or wives, as the case might be), and where a sufficiently wealthy family can contract (or buy, as again the case might be) a wife for their dead son, a girl has very few ways of protecting herself, or escaping the cage built around her. This commentary on the violent misogyny of Straits Chinese culture and the effect it has on Li Lan’s life is the very thing I love reading about, but as I mentioned earlier, this sort of thing is passed over and drowned out by Li Lan’s focus on her romantic complications.
Now, in the normal course of things, I would have put this book aside perhaps midway through and written it off as a loss. But I did not do that; instead, I kept going to the very end, working against my irritation at Li Lan. I continued reading for two reasons: the world itself, and the other characters.
The aspect of this novel that first grabbed my attention is the idea highlighted in the title: the concept of a ghost bride. Ghost marriages are an old tradition practiced by various Chinese communities (and a few non-Chinese communities) around the world. Amongst the Chinese, it is usually done to prevent a dead unmarried son or daughter (but usually a son) from haunting the family they left behind and bringing misfortune with them for having left their filial duties unfulfilled. According to news reports, ghost marriages are still held in rural China, but since the extreme population disparity between men and women in China has led to a severe shortage of women (and therefore female corpses), desperate families have sometimes resorted to grave robbery in order to give their bachelor sons a wife in the afterlife. And since many families are willing to pay large sums of money to get their dead sons married to a female corpse, some people have resorted to murder in order to cash in on the demand.
Now, the above scenarios operate on the idea that the two people being married are both dead (or almost-dead). However, if a family with a recently-deceased son is sufficiently wealthy and has enough socio-political clout, they can contract a marriage between their dead son and a still-living, healthy girl from a less-affluent background. In this case, the girl who accepts such an arrangement might do so in order to escape poverty or the shame of being a spinster (since her lack of status in society might make her an undesirable bride for anyone else). In Li Lan’s case, her family’s decline means that the Lim family’s offer is a tempting one indeed.
While the above setup was enough to lure me in, what really kept me going was the author’s descriptions of 1800s Malacca. The author is herself Malaysian Chinese, and her familiarity with the history, culture, and traditions of her country and community are clear in her descriptions of everything from the food, to the little customs and superstitions that abound in small, traditional communities, to the internal workings of the “amah sisterhood:”
… They were a special class of servant sometimes known as “black and white” because of the clothes they wore: a white Chinese blouse over black cotton trousers. Some were single women who refused to marry, others childless widows with no means of support. When they became amahs, they cut their hair into a short bob and joined a special sisterhood. They paid their dues and banked their money there, and in return after a lifetime of working for others, passed their old age in the Association House where they were fed and clothed until the end of their days. It was one of the few options for a woman with no family and no children to take care of her in her dotage.
Equally interesting are all the mythological and folkloric details laid out in the story. The Chinese take on the afterlife is a crucial element and vital setting in this novel, and the details of that aspect of the story made for interesting reading; indeed, the events and settings associated with that aspect of the novel are the best parts of the book, and would be even better if it were possible to eliminate all of Li Lan’s romantic side-tracking. The same goes for the complicated family politics of the Straits Chinese community. Some of those politics are familiar to me, but it is the specific details that I find fascinating.
As for the other characters, they are all quite intriguing apart from Li Lan. Tian Bai is fascinating on his own, with a rather mysterious backstory that opens up an intriguing path that could allow for exploration of inter-racial relationships between white colonisers and non-white locals. Unfortunately, since Li Lan is the novel’s narrator and she is patently uninterested in learning about Tian Bai’s romantic past, the reader does not get the chance to explore that particular aspect of Tian Bai’s life.
The same applies to Er Lang, a mysterious and clearly magical stranger whom Li Lan meets in the novel’s first third. There is plenty of foreshadowing to give the reader an idea of who and what Er Lang really is, but despite that knowledge, a lot remains left unexplained – information that could have deepened the richness of the mythological background supporting this novel. Sadly, since Li Lan is not terribly interested in getting Er Lang’s story out of him and she is the one in charge of this story, the reader does not get to learn more about him.
While the above aspects are the primary reasons that kept me going through this novel, they also contributed to a third: my decision to actually just put up with Li Lan despite my irritation. Now, as I have said, under any other circumstance I would have written off this book as a loss and put it aside because Li Lan is exactly the kind of YA character I do not enjoy reading about. But I kept going anyway because I actually understood what Li Lan was going through, despite my irritation at her flaws. I recognised her flaws as my own at that particular period in my life: I was just as wishy-washy, as indecisive, and yes, just as obsessed with romance as her when I was seventeen (and well beyond that, if I am being completely honest here). And I found it easier to forgive Li Lan her flaws, to see them as my own, because her setting, her culture, was patently not white. Li Lan is Straits Chinese, yes, and her customs are Straits Chinese, but her experience of colonialism and to some degree misogyny overlap with my own culture, my own history, my own experience. And that makes Li Lan a lot more relatable, a lot more interesting, than some of the protagonists I’ve seen (and dislike) in YA, such as the “special ordinary” white girl fighting a Western dystopia while trying to juggle her love interests when she really should be focusing on her survival.
Overall, The Ghost Bride is a bit of a grab bag. Li Lan is not the kind of character I or other readers might particularly like, especially when in control of the narrative, but everything else around and about her could be intriguing enough to keep the reader hooked despite his or her dislike of Li Lan. The saying “your mileage may vary” definitely applies to this book, and as long as the reader approaches it from the correct perspective, it can actually be quite entertaining.