An undiscerning eye might mistake the book for chick lit. But those who have read Yangsze Choo’s debut novel will know what I mean when I say “just another love story” is everything The Ghost Bride is not. An unmistakable profundity lands this exotic fable in a class of its own. In a fascinating blend of Chinese mythology, romance, and murder mystery, The Ghost Bride is an eerily enchanting coming-of-age story that will captivate adults and teen readers alike.
The story is set in the 1890s. Despite British colonization, Malaysia remains immersed in an amalgam of ancient superstitions. And in the secluded town of Malacca, an attractive young girl of genteel background named Li Lan is forced to consider ghost marriage following her family’s bankruptcy. The proposal comes from none other than the rich and powerful Lim family.
Ghost marriage is an increasingly rare folk tradition held to appease a restless spirit. A living maiden weds a deceased man and becomes a ghost bride, living the life of a widow in the husband’s family. Although Li Lan is aware the marriage will settle her family debts and allow her to regain a respectable social status, she declines and thinks nothing of it.
That is, until a visit to the opulent Lim mansion has her falling in love with the family’s charming nephew. She then begins receiving nightly hauntings from her dead and utterly covetous suitor, but her plans to escape him backfire and she becomes separated from her physical body in the form of a wandering soul. She navigates the magnificent dimensions of the Chinese afterworld: a world of wistful ghosts, malicious demons, and illusory paper cities of corrupt jurisdiction, accompanied by a strangely alluring guardian spirit named Er Lang and eventually embarks on a quest to uncover the Lim family’s shadowy history. Ultimately, she discovers her own family’s shocking past, and makes a decision that will change her life forever.
Determined to introduce readers to a new perspective of the afterlife (one devoid of vampires and zombies), Choo has taken an entirely different approach towards crafting a paranormal romance. The Ghost Bride brims with cultural allusions and Chinese folklore, exhibiting an inimitable degree of depth and complexity that redefines the genre as a whole. Choo writes with a disarming pen; her occasional sprinkling of Malay vocabulary will no doubt evoke delightful resonance with a familiar audience. Even so, Western readers need not fear being left in the dark. Explanations are seamlessly woven into the story, leaving behind only perspicuous suspense and the keys to, quite literally, a whole new world.
There is a generous amount of irony and surprise in The Ghost Bride, but it is not unbelievable that unpredictability is precisely what makes the narration so riveting. And although the plot is tender, but The Ghost Bride lives up to its name as a literary ghost story and definitely retains an element of the grotesque. The faint-hearted might find the reading experience slightly perturbing, but it’s an adrenaline rush you won’t want to miss out on.
Choo has created a novel as compelling and innovative in essence as it is in substance. The Ghost Bride is a charming piece of work – Choo’s first, but hopefully not her last.