We went to the cemetery on Qing Ming, the festival of the dead, to sweep the graves, honor our ancestors, and offer food and incense. The graves were made like small houses or very large armchairs, with wings on either side to encompass a central tablet and a small altar. The paths up the hills were overgrown with weeds and lalang, the sharp elephant grass that cuts you if you ran your finger along it. All around were abandoned graves that people had forgotten or which had no more descendants to care for them. The thought of having to pay my respects as the widow to a stranger made me shudder. And what exactly did marrying a ghost entail? My father had treated it as a joke. Amah had not wanted to say-she was so superstitious that naming something was as good as making it come true. As for myself, I could only hope that I would never need to know.
–The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
I will admit that when my sister suggested this book to dual review, I agreed because I’m not entirely sure it’s a book that would have crossed my path otherwise and I am trying out new books and genres as a way to stretch myself this year. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s out of my genre comfort zone, there’s a smidge of romance and plenty of supernatural elements, but Chinese culture hasn’t ever been something I have learned much about. Not that I shy away from it either, but there are a lot of cultures I love to learn about, and I haven’t gotten there yet. Now that I have read it, I am so glad I did! I can easily see myself reaching for this book again and again and the cultural history was very engaging.
Set in the colony of Malaya, Li Lan is the only daughter of a formerly genteel, now bankrupt, family. She has very few marriage prospects due to her father’s opium addiction that has kept him from successfully running a business or household. Fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the powerful and very wealthy Lim family: They would like her to be come a ghost bride for their only son, who recently died under suspicious circumstances. Traditional ghost marriages are rarely in practice anymore in the late 1800s, but were used to calm restless spirits. Should she choose to accept, the union would guarantee Li Lan a comfortable lifestyle for the rest of her days, but at a great sacrifice to her own happiness.
Li Lan pays a visit to the opulent but slightly sinister Lim mansion and finds herself torn between what she knows would benefit her family and her unexpected feelings for the Lim’s nephew, and new heir, Tian Bai. To add to that, she now finds herself haunted by her ghostly would-be suitor. Night after night, she is pulled into the shadowy Chinese afterlife with its many rituals, beliefs, and underhanded politics. This includes Er Lang, a likeable but unpredictable guardian spirit who seems to pop up both worlds. After several unfortunate events happen in quick succession, Li Lan quickly realizes that she needs to uncover the Lim’s darkest secrets-and how they are connected to her own family secrets-before she becomes trapped in the ghostly afterlife permanently.
I honestly can’t believe this is Yangsze Choo’s first novel! It is so well written from beginning to end and has just the right mixture of historical fiction blended with supernatural elements. She is clearly knowledgeable on her subject material, but Choo never makes it feel like a history lesson. This book is set in the 1890s, when Malaya was ruled by the British and so there is a lot of traditional beliefs and customs mixed with the “new” catholic religion that some families were taking up. This plays its own part in the story as Li Lan struggles with her ties to old world China and her desires to be educated in all modern opinions and aspects of life.
My mother in law actually read this and when she saw what I was reading to review next, she simply stated “it wasn’t very exciting.” That isn’t what I wanted to hear from her because historical fiction is her jam. It’s what she prefers to read. I am here to say that I am glad that we disagree on this one. This book spends no time mincing words or being coy. If you’re expecting Michael Bay adrenaline packed action, you have probably come to the wrong place. However, if you enjoy a book that manages to simultaneously keep a plot moving while not rushing any of the great details, this book is for you.
I honestly can’t think of a legitimate “con” for this book. If I were to nitpick at it, which isn’t really my style, I would say that I didn’t feel that there was enough Er Lang for my taste and I was never really drawn to Tian Bai. But again, those aren’t really cons, they’re just personal preferences. I actually read that the author never intended to have as much Er Lang in the books as there was, but I am really thankful for this because he was my favorite character.
This book is classified as adult literature and I feel there is a certain maturity to the writing that lends itself to that age group, but I would recommend this book to adults and young adults alike. Younger teens may find it lacking as it isn’t the quick tempo book designed to keep up with their attention spans but if you do have a younger teen that is interested in historical Chinese culture, they may enjoy this book quite a bit. I personally cannot wait to read Choo’s second novel.
What do you think? Sound like a book you can really sink your teeth into? Let me know in the comments!