First published in The Star on 3rd August, 2014
THE GHOST BRIDE
Author: Yangsze Choo
Publisher: William Morrow, 368 pages
WHEN I first heard about this book, I was intrigued. I didn’t know the details of the plot, just the book’s title and that it was set in Malacca.
The title misled me because it suggests a marriage, without which there would not be a bride. My imagination misled me further. As I thought there would be an actual marriage, between a living girl and the spirit of a man, I thought that the story would focus on the married life of the couple, describing, in particular, the bride’s experiences in the world of the dead and how she copes not just with being a new bride but also the fact that her husband is dead! I imagined that there would be plenty of scope for conflicts – perhaps a dead “other woman” or a thwarted suitor in the world of the living, or strange and violent encounters with other-worldly beings.
Anyway, The Ghost Bride is not about an actual marriage involving a corpse (mores the pity). It’s about Li Lan, the 17-year-old only-daughter of an impoverished widower in 19th century Malacca and the marriage proposal she receives from the wealthy Lim family on behalf of their late eldest son, Tian Ching.
It’s hardly surprising that Li Lan finds the very idea distasteful. However, ghost marriages were not actually uncommon among the Chinese (and are apparently still practised in the case of the deaths of a betrothed couple). Such unions were usually practical in nature. In Li Lan’s case, such a marriage would secure her future, ensuring a roof over her head and food in her belly until her death, as well as a place at the Lim family’s prayer altar after death. Still, it’s understandable that Li Lan is adamant not to marry Tian Ching especially when several dream-encounters reveal that he is a boorish and conceited bully. Furthermore, she meets and falls in love with his cousin, the Lim family’s new heir, Tian Bai. However, Tian Ching is not easily put-off and is even prepared to play dirty to win the hand of Li Lan.
Li Lan eventually learns that she must journey into the Plains of the Dead in order to ensure that she is safe from Tian Ching’s machinations, but while marriage with Tian Bai seems to be her ultimate aim, several plot developments (including an encounter with a mysterious and heartbreakingly handsome young man) cause Li Lan to reconsider what she wants out of life.
I liked the idea of exploring the Chinese afterlife and I like how the author incorporates the various customs involving death and the dead, including the practice of burning paper money and objects, into Li Lan’s adventures. I felt that this was done quite deftly, without excessive exposition. However, Yangsze Choo tends to over-explain various aspects of everyday life and historical details, and this makes for clumsy storytelling.
The story is told in the first person, from Li Lan’s perspective and the amount of information offered makes it clear that the reader The Ghost Bride was written for is non-Malaysian, certainly non-Chinese, and most definitely those unfamiliar with the customs and practices of the Chinese and Chinese-Malaysian/Malayan community.
Still, I feel these assumed gaps in the knowledge of the reader could be filled in more skilfully, in a way that reads more naturally, for example by incorporating facts into conversation. In fact, this is done successfully when Li Lan herself is ignorant about things and asks her nanny questions.
I have no doubt that The Ghost Bride will be widely read and enjoyed by foreign readers who will love the detailed descriptions of the strange worlds (of both the dead and the living). I think even Malaysian readers will be fascinated by the fantasy and supernatural elements of the tale (don’t we love a good ghost story?). Unfortunately, there is nothing remotely frightening about The Ghost Bride, but perhaps a movie adaptation can rectify that oversight.
NB: 2nd July, 2016: I have since read Zen Cho Terracotta Bride, which is a lot more like how I imagined The Ghost Bride to be. Cho’s work (a novelette) is available in e-format, and I can imagine it developed into a book that would give Choo’s novel a real run for its money.