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Yangsze Choo – The Ghost Bride

December 17, 2014

93. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (2014)

Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy (of the supernatural/spirit creatures variety)

Started: 11 November 2014
Finished: 23 November 2014

Where did it come from? From HarperCollins for review.
Why do I have it? A story about the Chinese afterlife sounded intriguing.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 27 August 2014.

Marriage to a dead
man is bad enough without
him being a jerk.

Summary: Ever since her mother died from smallpox and her father retreated from society, Li Lan has been largely isolated from the world of colonial Malaysia, not to mention people her own age. So when her father mentions that she has received a marriage proposal, she is surprised… but then she learns that she is to become a ghost bride, wed in a ceremony to the spirit of the dead son of her father’s former business associate, Lim Tiang Ching. She wants no part of such a marriage, especially once the ghost in question begins haunting her dreams, and he turns out to be self-centered and obnoxious, especially in comparison to his very much alive (and very attractive) cousin, Tian Bai. As Li Lan grows increasingly desperate, she takes an unthinkable step, and soon finds herself trapped in the spirit world, where she must travel to the Plains of the Dead if she ever hopes to untangle herself from the machinations of the Lim family and return to the world of the living.

Review: This book has a lot of elements that Yangzee Choo is trying to juggle at once, which both works for the book as well as occasionally against it. In its favor, this book is packed with really interesting things and ideas and characters. I knew very, very little about Chinese mythology and the Chinese version of the afterlife before reading this book, and although Choo mentions in her author’s note that many parts of the afterlife in this book are her own invention, I felt like at least the flavor and nature of the world she created were authentic to Chinese (or more specifically, Malaysian Chinese) culture. It definitely had the tone and rhythms of a familiar fairy tale or myth, for all that the actual players were unfamiliar to me. I also enjoyed her non-supernatural setting as well – colonial Malaysia was not somewhere I’d given much thought to before, although it was a little strange coming out of reading The Windup Girl so recently, which also featured wealthy expats in an Asian city, albeit in a very (very!) different context. Choo’s writing is lovely and evocative, and created these historical and fantastic worlds with equal clarity and vividness.

I also really enjoyed the characters, and the progression of Li Lan’s story. The only snag I hit in this book was that there are so many elements, and so many subplots, that they don’t really all come together in the end. For example, initially there’s a big deal made out of the fact that Lim Tiang Ching hints that Tian Bai murdered him in order to take his place as the family’s heir. For a while, it seemed as though the book was setting itself up to be a murder mystery, with Li Lan tasked with solving it, but eventually that plotline kind of peters out. There’s also a bunch of stuff about the judges of the afterlife, and the bureaucracy and whether or not Lim Tiang Ching is bribing the officials, and so then I was expecting *that* to be a thing, but as the focus carries on with Li Lan’s journey, the bribery storyline is mostly dropped, and is wrapped up offscreen by another character. So, while I found each of the pieces interesting, and Li Lan’s story certainly kept me involved throughout, the various underdeveloped subplots did make the whole thing feel a little disjointed – which, actually, is not entirely out of keeping with the tone of a book about the afterlife. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Quite enjoyable; particularly recommended to those who like books involving mythology and the afterlife and quest-y or Odyssey-like journeys, and/or Chinese culture and traditions.

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First Line: One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 61: “The doctor came again and prescribed a course of moxibustion and more herbs to warm my blood.” – The burning of a cone or cylinder of cotton wool or other combustible material on the skin to treat diseases or to produce analgesia.
    .
  • p. 140: “Our family had once had such a godown when my father still engaged actively in trade.” – In India and East Asia, a warehouse, especially one at a dockside.
    .
  • p. 282: “Tian Bai had tiffin delivered to his desk as he pored over paperwork.” – A meal at midday; a luncheon.
    .

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