The Ghost Bride is a great summer read which I thoroughly enjoyed and raced through in no time. I picked it up based on a list of recommended fantasy reads that are one-off’s and not part of a multi-volume series. This novel was so good, I now wish it was part of a series (and it seems to me, based on the ending, that it could become one). I came for the fantasy/ghost aspect and its historical overtones, but the romance part of it was unexpectedly delightful, reminiscent in some ways of Jane Austen and her keen observations about society, class, wealth, and the sexes.
Set in Malacca, 1893, the novel is told from the point of view of Li Lan, the 17 year old daughter and only child of her widowed father. Dad was once financially secure but is now in debt and has never recovered from the death of Li Lan’s mother from small pox when Li Lan was an infant. Small pox left her father scarred as well, but Li Lan was spared. Raised by her father and her Amah (a sort of nanny and personal maid), Li Lan’s education is a mix of traditional and modern. Her father is a Confucian who has no use for talk of spirits and gods. He taught Li Lan to read and introduced her to the classics, but he has also kept Li Lan isolated from society. He spends time in his study smoking opium while Li Lan spends time with her Amah who also raised Li Lan’s mother and is deeply into religion, Chinese traditions and the spirit world. Amah worries about Li Lan’s prospects and the need for a good marriage. Given that the family’s fortunes have fallen and the father is more or less a recluse, opportunities for Li Lan are few and far between. Yet, despite this desperate situation, no one in the household is excited when the wealthy Lim family approaches the father about a “ghost marriage,” i.e., marrying Li Lan to the spirit of their recently deceased son Lim Tian Ching. This marriage would relieve Li Lan’s father’s financial burdens and connect Li Lan to a respected family, but Amah is appalled at the thought, Li Lan wants real love and a real marriage, and the father seems embarrassed to even bring it up. Li Lan is invited to a gathering at the Lim household and while there she encounters the Lim family’s heir Tian Bai. He is handsome, western educated and as drawn to Li Lan as she is to him. The Lim family, particularly the mother, are still fixated on the ghost marriage to Lim Tian Ching for reasons that will not be clear until later.
Soon after this gathering at the Lim’s, Lim Tian Ching’s spirit starts visiting Li Lan in her dreams and making unwanted advances from the realm of the dead. Li Lan is repulsed by him and has to fight to wake up, but he is relentless in his pursuit, repeatedly invading her dreams and even appearing to her through her mirror. Li Lan doesn’t tell her father because as a Confucian, he rejects belief in such things and might think her mad. Amah would believe every word and be terrified by what is happening to Li Lan. Lim Tian Ching tells Li Lan that he is certain to prevail despite her protestations because of the deals and powerful connections he has in the spirit world (just as his family has in the physical world). Lim Tian Ching also reveals troubling information about Li Lan’s family and about his half-brother Tian Bai that deeply upsets Li Lan. After confessing to Amah, Li Lan and Amah visit a medium who provides temporary relief from Lim Tian Ching’s visits but Li Lan then falls into a coma. In this state, her spirit separates from her physical body and is able to move about with some limitations in the physical and spiritual worlds. Although Li Lan’s new situation is fraught with danger, she begins investigating the world of spirits and ghosts and resolves to figure out how to save herself. In this spirit world, Li Lan must quickly learn how to stay safe and figure out whom she can trust. And she must work quickly, as the longer her spirit is separated from her body, the higher the risk of permanent separation.
In her spiritual travels, Li Lan encounters the ghosts of people whose ancestors didn’t leave offerings for them, monsters of a most terrifying description, and spirits awaiting or avoiding judgment. The latter category includes a female spirit named Fan who explains the workings of the afterlife to Li Lan and helps her find the Plains of the Dead — the dangerous place where she might find answers to her questions and a way to save herself. Li Lan finds herself repeatedly encountering a mysterious character named Er Lang who keeps his face hidden and seems to be both human and some sort of spirit. Er Lang is a sort of detective of the spirit world and he is investigating Lim Tian Ching’s ability to manipulate the spirit world to his advantage. Er Lang wants to use Li Lan for his work, but he is secretive and perhaps not entirely trustworthy. Li Lan will have to make some perilous decisions and find a courage she didn’t know she possessed as she works to save herself from unwanted marriage, solve a murder, perhaps find her mother in the afterlife, and avert a revolution in the spirit world that could have serious and catastrophic repercussions for the physical world. And she has to do this before her spirit turns to a ghost and her body dies.
The novel moves along at a good clip (I was on the edge of my seat more than once) and the characters are a diverse and engaging lot. Li Lan’s father, despite his glaring flaws, is a tragic character, and Amah and Old Wong (another servant) are dear, smart and fierce. Lim Tian Ching is smarmy and deplorable, while Tian Bai is dreamy. And Er Lang … please read this novel and let’s discuss Er Lang. He’s my fav. That is all. Author Yangsze Choo also provides a number of secondary characters in both the physical and spiritual worlds who, despite brief appearances, are well drawn and advance the plot along.
Choo sets out a number of dichotomies throughout the novel, any one of which could lead to lively discussion in a book group: male and female, European and Asian, traditional and modern, wealthy and poor, spiritual and physical world. One topic that came up and intrigued me was how we see ourselves vs the way others see us, and what we see when people don’t know we are looking. In her spirit body, Li Lan can look at herself as others see her and she is surprised. She can also observe others unnoticed and sees things that she had not noticed before. Li Lan is a wonderful heroine; not only does she find her courage, she learns from her mistakes and manages to maintain sympathy even for those who might not deserve it. She does not lose her humanity as she negotiates the dangers of the spiritual world and the physical world. In the end, she makes a very difficult decision, and I heartily approve of her choice, which is why I want there to be a sequel. This is a great read for a weekend away or your book group.