Title: The Ghost Bride
Author: Yangsze Choo
Published: August 6th, 2013
Li Lan, the daughter of an impoverished family of Chinese origins, receives a peculiar proposal: the powerful Lim family wants her to become a ghost bride for their recently deceased son, to placate his restless spirit. From this backcover blurb and the first few scenes I expected an historical novel about this peculiar tradition, so I was more than a little surprised when Li Lan’s would-be fiancé shows up as a ghost to press his suit in person. (Note to self: check if a book is marked as “paranormal” or “ghosts” on GoodReads next time, that might have been a clue.) However, far from being disappointed, I was quickly drawn into this world of ghosts and spirits.
The book is set in Malaya (present-day Malaysia), a country I hadn’t read about since Sandokan. It was extremely refreshing to have such an unusual location instead of my usual Regency or Victorian England. The author herself is Malaysian of Chinese descent, so she knows what she’s talking about, and she’s very respectful when describing all the different cultures in the streets of Malacca. She’s also very good at describing Chinese mythology and the Ten Courts of Hell in a way that makes it easy for the reader to understand Li Lan’s beliefs, while at the same time avoiding the pitfall of being too pedantic or simplistic. I think even someone familiar with the subject would enjoy this book, because of the enormous amount of detail in everything.
To me it felt almost as if the setting was the main character of the story. The human protagonist, Li Lan, is also likeable. She is sheltered and sometimes naive, but she doesn’t have that frustrating stupidity that plagues many heroines. At the very least she has her priorities in order: first get out of the Underworld then think about her feelings for the tall dark stranger she just met, etc. Yeah, there’s a tall dark stranger. There’s also a love triangle, sort of. Fortunately the romance subplot was very light and didn’t take over the book, which is very much about ghosts and Li Lan’s journey, so I was okay with it. The secondary characters weren’t much fleshed out but I liked that many of them were a mixture of good and bad: for example Li Lan’s father is responsible for the family’s poverty and Li Lan’s inability to marry, and still I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic to his situation; Li Lan’s Amah is sweet and caring, but because she doesn’t understand the situation sometimes her actions harm Li Lan. Tian Ching and some of the other ghosts are clearly malevolent, but that felt appropriate in a ghost story.
Overall this book was very slow-paced but very enjoyable book. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes paranormal novels but wants to try something new. Also if you’re a fan of Ghibli movies, especially Spirited Away, you should definitely try it because it has the same atmosphere.