What’s it all about?:
“One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride…”
Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.
What did I think?:
My sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads recommended and gave this book to me and I was attracted to it immediately. Not only is the cover absolutely stunning but I loved the synopsis – a little bit historical, Asian fiction with a dusting of the paranormal, sounds like my perfect book! And it was, on so many levels. Our main character is a seventeen girl called Li Lan who lives in 19th Century Malaya (now Malaysia) under British rule as a member of the upper class. Sadly, there is nothing upper class about her situation. She has lost her mother under strange circumstances and her father in his grief has become addicted to his opium pipe and is slowly disappearing from her also. They live in a large, beautiful house that is now slowly crumbling away due to lack of maintenance and her prospects, especially for marriage look entirely gloomy. Her only comfort is her old Amah who has been with her since her birth but even she, fiesty though she is, cannot hope to influence her father as he slides further and further into addiction.
One day, her father calls Li Lan in and mentions that he has had an interesting offer from the rich Lim family concerning a match for her. The unfortunate thing is that the bridegroom to be is their dead son, Lim Tiang Ching. Yes, you read right. Dead. Her father says that he instantly refused the proposal but he worries as at least it would have meant that Li Lan would have been provided for for the rest of her life. Li Lan is horrified but agrees to just pay a visit to the Lim household as a courtesy. On arriving, she is stunned by the magnificence of the house, the surroundings, the food she is offered and the servants who cater to her every whim. She also finds something she was not expecting – to fall in love. No, not with the dead son, with a very much alive cousin and heir-to-be, Tian Bei. After meeting him, albeit briefly, she decides there is no way that she could ever become the wife of a dead man, especially one so repulsive as Lim Tiang Ching who begins to invade her nightly dreams, insisting that she should be his wife.
Li Lan continues to refuse him – it’s just a dream, right? However, he becomes angrier and more harassing on each visit and soon she becomes drawn into the spirit world, leaving her shell of a body behind as a living ghost. Stuck between two worlds Li Lan meets with a kindly and enigmatic guide, Er Lang who sends her to The Plains Of The Dead, a hideous place where spirits wander before being judged. This harks back to Chinese mythology where after death, spirits must go to the Courts of Hell to atone and be punished for any sins committed. After an indeterminate amount of time, depending on the severity of the sin, they then enter the reincarnation stage where they are born again to a life of comfort or poverty depending on how they behaved in their past life.
“I had seen some of the painted hell scrolls that depicted the gruesome fates awaiting sinners. There were people being boiled in oil or sawed in half by horse and ox-headed demons. Others were forced to climb mountains of knives or were pounded into powder by enormous mallets. Gossips had their tongues ripped out, hypocrites and tomb robbers were disemboweled. Unfilial children were frozen in ice. The worst was the lake of blood into which suicides and women who had died in childbirth or aborted their children were consigned.”
When I read up a bit further on this superstition, I also found that one could be punished for the sin of “misusing books,” which I found amusing and fascinating! See guys, I told you dog-earing was wrong! Anyway, Li Lan must carry out various tasks in the spirit world whilst trying to avoid demons with ox for heads and corrupt Hell officials who are baying for her blood. Li Lan learns so much about herself and the mystery of her family as she navigates her way through the dangerous Plains but she must hurry. If she does not complete her tasks within a timely fashion, the fragile link between her body and the spirit world will be severed and she will be trapped there forever.
Diyu – a version of hell in traditional Chinese culture, during the Tang dynasty this increased to 134 hells with 18 different levels of pain and torture with Levels known as the Chamber of Tongue Ripping, The Chamber of Scissors, The Chamber of Iron Cycads, the Chamber of Mirror, Chamber of Steamer, Forest of Copper Column, Mountain of Knives, the Hill of Ice, Cauldron of Boiling Oil, Chamber of Ox, Chamber of Rock, Chamber of Pounding, Pool of Blood, Town of Suicide, Chamber of Dismemberment, Mountain of Flames, Yard of Stone Mill, and Chamber of Saw.
Hmm, not a place I fancy visiting any time soon.
I began this book with such high expectations and I’m delighted to report that what I read exceeded those. Yangsze Choo has woven a mesmerising tale which is beautifully descriptive in its historical detail and brilliant in plot execution. I love learning new things about different cultures and this was one of those books which explains everything so simply to the reader without ever feeling patronising. I found all the superstitions and folklores fascinating, especially the burning of offerings to appease the “hungry ghosts.” I can’t believe that this is the authors debut novel, the writing is so accomplished and in no way amateur. The whole book is fresh, exciting and like nothing I have ever read before, even the ending (although surprising) is totally unexpected and original. I can’t wait to see what she does next, I know I’ll be snapping it up immediately.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):