Monday, 26 August 2013

Afterlife Adventure

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 August 2013

It wasn't too long ago that I'd read a novel set in pre-war/post-war Malaya. Now I get another one. How many times must we re-visit this era like some old propaganda reel?

Nevertheless, I soldiered on with the hope that this one will be different. Thank my ancestors that it is.

Set in 19th-century Malacca, The Ghost Bride is a supernatural tale of love, tradition, and taboos. The protagonist of Choo Yangsze's novel is Pan Li Lan, a somewhat bookish young lady of a once-prosperous family. Her father spends his days chasing the dragon (smoking opium) and not much else.

Out of the blue comes a proposal from the prosperous Lim family for Li Lan to become a ghost bride to their recently-deceased scion. All seems fine and dandy until the dead boy Lim Tian Ching starts courting Li Lan in her dreams and repulses her. That'll teach her to think about husbands before bedtime.

Then she learns that she'd been originally betrothed to Tian Ching's kinder and cuter cousin Tian Bai, before it was scrapped for the current arrangement. Oh, how the tears flowed.

And when Tian Ching's night-time visitations become unbearable, the desperate Li Lan overdoses on a medium's nostrum which kicks her soul out of her body. But she soon learns to make the best of her situation, thanks in part to a female ghost called Fan who teaches her some of the basics.

As she adjusts to her new situation as a real ghost, she takes the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about her family's past, Tian Bai's past, and how Tian Ching was able to enter her dreams. This eventually takes her to the realm of the dead and an adventure of an afterlifetime.

Things get hairier when corrupt hell officials and animal-headed demon constables get involved. Coming to Li Lan's rescue include the Pan family chef Old Wong (no relation), who can see ghosts, and Er Lang, a mysterious young fellow who appears to be a spirit-world constable.

I was told — and can see why — this novel is categorised as young adult fiction in the UK; a few times I've wanted to rename this book Huánghūn. Li Lan sounds like a typical teenaged girl who reads the likes of Judith McNaught or Stephenie Meyer. Here, Pan Li Lan is speaking to an audience.

We're treated to her thoughts, hopes and fears in a narrative that on occasion includes details about things like Malacca, Bukit China, Qing Ming, and the blue pea-flower used to make Nyonya kuih. Rare attempts at wit include her giving her nursemaid "a ghost of a smile" when she assures her she's fine.

Even in her panic upon discovering an ox demon guarding the door to her room, she manages to tell us, like a schoolteacher, that it looks like a seladang, a kind of wild ox found in the Malayan jungles, yada yada. Her descriptions of the street food she sees as she floats by some hawker stands is enough to make you hungry like a ghost.

Is it a coincidence that this book — about a young Straits-Chinese girl's adventures in the spirit world — was officially released during the Hungry Ghost Month?

We get no incredible heroics from Li Lan, apart from some attempts at subterfuge that end badly because of bad luck. After all, she is a normal girl and how she is portrayed here — an interloper in a dangerous realm — is as realistic as suspension of disbelief allows.

We also get the love triangle, an indispensible aspect in many YA plots — albeit a thin one. In Team Tian Bai versus Team Er Lang, the former is soliticious and gentle to our lovely orchid, while the latter is snarky, abrasive, and doesn't seem to care about her. We know how this ends, don't we?

But ah, how Choo paints the backdrops: the old Malacca neighbourhoods, the interiors of Peranakan houses and the din at the mahjong table. Even her vision of the afterlife is kind of credible, except perhaps for the comparison between the ancient and "modern" offerings for the dead.

The way Choo Yangsze's The Ghost Bride demands its readers' attention, it almost seems taboo to skim it. Fans of lush, descriptive writing styles will dive straight into Li Lan's world. Others like, say, jaded, slightly bibliophobic reviewers would probably be content to paddle on the surface, at the cost of missing out some good parts.

Other than that, it is a somewhat good book. Don't just take Oprah's word for it.

The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo
William Morrow (2013)
368 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-227553-0


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