Author: Yangsze Choo
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural
Pages: 368 (ARC edition)
Published: August 6 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
"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.
The Ghost Bride is an evocative, eerie tale of one girl in 1890's Malaya (now known as Malaysia). Debut author Yangsze Choo writes with authority and with clear prose that lends well to picturing the important port town of Malacca. Part historical fiction, part supernatural tale of the Chinese afterlife, The Ghost Bride is a slow-moving but deftly written piece of fiction. Memorable and unique, Choo creates a vivid setting, peopled with interesting characters for readers to enjoy and explore. A small mystery plays its part in propelling the plot, but the experiences of Li Lan, both real and spiritual, are what makes the book special.
The first part of the novel is rather slow-moving and possibly the most difficult part of reading Li Lan's story. It can be hard to get into and I struggled to keep read initially. The slow pace, the meandering plot, and an admitted style of "telling" can hinder the reader's first impression. However, once Choo hits her stride and the plot emerges as more significant, The Ghost Bride greatly improves. Choo's style leans towards descriptive and detailed, and while that fosters a strong sense of place, it's hard to get a read on characters for a bit. Thankfully, that problem is remedied as the story progresses and the characters get more time and attention. I can't say that the entire cast is uniformly rounded or interesting as individuals, but Li Lan, her Amah, and her father, especially, feel real and complex.
As a historical fiction, The Ghost Bride excels. Where it fell apart for me was when the extended supernatural section began. I hadn't expected such a long experience in "the afterlife" with Li Lan comatose in the real world. She is still an active protagonist, but it failed to read as interestingly as her actions when awake. Choo picks and chooses, as well as invents parts of the Chinese afterlife to fit her story, but not enough information is provided for me to really follow all the rules and customs that govern Li Lan's actions while there. It was intriguing, but not fleshed out enough to satisfy. The mystery flags a bit as well in later chapters, and seems to conclude rather too simply and easily.
For all that, I greatly enjoyed this novel. Choo is a talented storyteller with a fresh and inviting style. Li Lan's story is fresh and unlike other novels I've read. The Ghost Bride is a neat, creative bit of fiction, and one that I feel good about recommending to friends who are fans of historical fiction and/or supernatural fiction. The writing is especially strong, and occasionally quite beautiful. For a debut author, Yangsze Choo acquits herself admirably. Several genres are meshed together, and while not all were carried off perfectly, Choo is more than capable of making them all work together rather well.
Bonus: As a fun note, the author's website has Choo's story about personally recording the audiobook for The Ghost Bride. Her thoughts on the process of recording the story were fascinating to read, and she also provided the entire first chapter in audio form on the site. I'd listen to that to see if this is the type of book you would enjoy.