In my review of Uprooted, I mentioned that I had learned about it from a list I stumbled upon about standalone novels for those who enjoy reading fantasy. That’s also where I learned about Yangsze Choo’s 2013 novel, The Ghost Bride.
The Ghost Bride is a novel about an ancient Chinese practice of marrying off the living to the deceased for various reasons. Sometimes, this strange ritual is done to raise the status of a concubine to a wife or to legitimize an heir. Other times, the couple involved are lovers who are unable to get married owing to the sudden death of one but the living partner still wants to honor the union. Whatever the reason, if the living partner agrees to it, he/she would be married to a rooster, which represents the deceased partner, and then be entitled to all the benefits of the union, as the marriage is legal and binding.
An interesting premise no doubt if the novel actually stuck to that plot. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the plot got lost and veered off in several different directions.
Set in 1893 in the Dutch/Portugese/British colony of Malacca in Malaysia, The Ghost Bride opens with the main character, a young beautiful Chinese woman named Li Lan, being asked by her father if she would be willing to be someone’s ghost wife. Li Lan’s family had seen better days. Once rich and prestigious, they can now hardly afford to retain their three servants and maintain the upkeep of their old and dilapidated mansion. Li Lan was proposed to on behalf of the head of the Lim family, a wealthy family whose son and heir had died recently from a fever. Shocked and bewildered, Li Lan refuses the union to the disappointment of her ayah or nanny.
Despite her refusal of the union, after visiting the Lim mansion on the invitation of the family’s matriarch, Li Lan starts having strange dreams at night in which she is visited by her would-be husband, Lim Tian Ching. In these strange dreams, Li Lan learns about Tian Ching and the circumstances behind the supposed marriage and his death. Horrified by the dreams and by Tian Ching, Li Lan and her ayah seek the help of a medium to stop the haunting.
Unfortunately, in the course of trying to stop the nightmares caused by Tian Ching, Li Lan inadvertently causes herself to go into a coma, freeing her spirit from her body. With her spirit in this transient state, Li Lan discovers the strange world of the dead, where she ends up spying on the deceased members of the Lim family, including Tian Ching, and getting tangled in a complicated web of corruption, deceit, and a planned rebellion in the Underworld.
Amid all the ghosts, deceit, and corrupt officials of the Underworld, there is also a love story between Li Lan and a living man she was betrothed to unbeknownst to her. Though their feelings for each other are mutual, the strange set of circumstances surrounding their families make their union seem impossible. There is also the presence of another character, Er Lang, who, though not clearly explained, seems to be a minor god, who for some reason was investigating the dead Lim family’s involvement in an expected uprising. Li Lan meets Er Lang while in a coma, and he sends her to the ghost world to spy for him with the promise that he would help her spirit reenter her physical body.
The first half of the novel with Li Lan being propositioned by the Lim family is intriguing, with its historical and cultural references about not only Straits-born Chinese but also the old settlement of Malacca. However, the second half of the novel, with Li Lan’s spirit in the ghost world helping Er Lang weed out corruption, is long and rambling, with the plot getting a little off tangent. It’s not completely clear why Er Lang is doing an investigation or why Li Lan is helping him. Likewise, it is never clearly stated what crimes Lim Tian Ching and his family committed or what their punishment was after Er Lang’s report.
Many seemingly important things in the novel are never explained, with many questions left unanswered. By the end of the novel, the point of the story becomes unclear. The plot and love story changed so much that the title takes on a whole different meaning.
I’m not saying the novel is without its good points. The novel’s rich historical and cultural flavors make it quite intriguing, and the author’s descriptions of the Chinese concept of death and the afterlife as well as their rituals and practices are quite fascinating. There are also some Chinese folklore and mythology mixed in to make it more interesting. I enjoyed the mystery of the ghost story and the light romance in Li Lan’s life; however, in the end, they were not enough to make the novel remarkable or even very good.
The Ghost Bride (2013) – Yangsze Choo
Harper Collins; e-book
Personal rating: 2/5