The oldest had collapsed into themselves so that the slope was dotted here and there with gaping holes, like the empty tooth sockets of some giant creature. How different it was from the quiet Malay cemeteries, whose pawn-shaped Islamic tombstones are shaded by the frangipani tree, which the Malays call the graveyard flower. Amah would never let me pluck the fragrant, creamy blossoms when I was a child. It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.
– The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
The Ghost Bride is a historical fantasy about a young woman named Li Lan living in Malaya in 1893. She is the only child of a small Chinese family, whose bankrupt father rarely emerges from their home to socialize. When Li Lan receives an unexpected offer of marriage from the wealthy Lim family, Li Lan at first hopes that the offer is for their recently named heir, the clever and kind Tian Bai. Li Lan, however, is disappointed to discover that the offer is instead to become the ghost bride of their recently passed son, Lim Tian Ching. Li Lan wishes to refuse the offer – she would marry only to become a shadow to the Lim family, the bride that immediately becomes a widow. However, the memory of Lim Tian Ching has begun to seep into her dreams, and she begins to suspect that she is being haunted by his ghost.
Her haunting, however, is only the start of this story. One rash act, and Li Lan slips into a coma, her spirit free to wander the ghost world, her body suddenly useless to her. Free of her useless body, Li Lan is free to investigate the spirit world, perhaps solving the mystery of Lim Tian Ching’s obsession, but she begins to wonder whether she can ever return to her body in the human realm.
I had expected this novel to be first and foremost a ghost story, and was surprised to find that it is in fact more of a fantasy novel. The majority of the novel takes place in the spirit world, which provided an interesting contrast between the world building of the human world, and the spirit world that dominates the novel. I was not familiar with the living world or the world of the spirits according to Chinese folklore, so reading this novel was entirely new territory to me. I felt that the spirit world was much more developed than the world of the living, and perhaps because of my own lack of knowledge, I wish more time had been spent in the world of the living. I would have liked to see more interaction between Li Lan and the Lim family, or even Li Lan and her own family. I wanted to see some of those dynamics, how she responded to outsiders or even how she interacted with her own father. I also wish I could have seen more culture – a little more information about the Double Seventh Festival, or more interaction at the mahjong game before Li Lan wandered off. I also wanted to see more interaction between Li Lan and her nurse, Amah. I think Amah’s role later in the novel would have made more sense if we got a little more early on.
Li Lan perhaps could have been developed a little more – I did not feel like she had much drive other than her wish to return to the human world, and even then, I was not exactly sure why she so desperately wanted to return. The romance between Li Lan and Tian Bai was a little underdeveloped I would have liked to see a little more time spent in world of the living to develop this romance a little more. However, Li Lan made some very interesting decisions in the spirit world. Her search for her mother was rewarding, and she definitely showed some spark during her investigation of Lim Tian Ching.
Er Lang was definitely the most interesting character of the novel, and had the best personal story. The mystery of his background was steadily revealed, and I liked his motivations – his own investigation was logical, his actions made sense, and even his ending, while surprising to me, was satisfying.
I was very happy with the plot of the novel. The premise is established early on and remained steady: Li Lan needed to solve the mystery of Lim Tian Ching’s death, free herself of his hold, and return to the world of the living before it was too late for her soul to return to her body. All temporary interruptions linked back to this overarching plot, and all characters, even Li Lan’s mother and Er Lang himself related to this overall plot. I felt that the story stayed focused, had a clear beginning, middle, and end, and had a satisfying resolution.
In all, I would recommend The Ghost Bride to readers of fantasy, readers of young adult fiction, or readers interested in East Asian culture and folklore. I would rate it a 6 out of 10. I greatly enjoyed the spirit world, but I wish I had seen more of the world of the living, and I think a little more early development of Li Lan would have given her more drive later in the novel.