The Ghost Bride

We read a surprising amount of material in my Plagues, Witches and War class, much of which I liked quite a bit, including some stories I would never have picked up on my own. The book that I liked the most, by a strong margin, is Ghost Bride by Yangse Choo. A YA novel set in historic Malay, this gorgeous story takes place both in the secular and the spiritual world.

Li Lan is a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times. Her mother passed away from smallpox years ago and her father spends his time smoking opium and neglecting his business duties. Not only are they financially beleaguered, they have also fallen in status. As the story begins Li Lan's father tells her that a wealthy family called the Lims has asked her to be a ghost bride to their deceased son, who was spoiled in life and expected to get everything he wants.

Li Lan's Amah, who has cared for her since her mother passed away, and cared for her mother before that, is horrified. Even though Li Lan tries to pass the idea off as a joke Amah is afraid of the bad luck talking about such matters can bring. Amah is very superstitious while Li Lan is more like her father, whose philosophy doesn't include luck or things like the God of Smallpox.

But soon the matriarch of the Lim family begins to treat Li Lan as though she is already engaged to Lim Tian Ching, the dead heir. She asks for something of Li Lan's and suddenly Lim Tian Ching invades Li Lan's dreams. These dreams are filled with luxurious, but impermanent and foreboding, luxuries. The tables are set for a feast, everything is decorated. The house is ready for a grand event which never occurs. These dreams terrify Li Lan, who has to struggle with all her might to wake up from them. When she and Amah seek help from a medium things spiral even more out of control. Li Lan is suddenly stuck in the afterlife, surrounded by all sorts of mysterious creatures, trying to find her way back home again.

The Ghost Bride is told in two different styles. For the first part of the book things move slowly, with lots of description. Then once Li Lan enters the spirit world things speed up and we see a lot more action. This was my favorite part, despite being the worst for poor Li Lan. (Yes I am a terrible person taking pleasure while others suffer.) I have been reading ghost stories, mythology, fairy tales, etc for more than forty years and I sometimes feel like I'm too familiar with much of the oeuvre. The Ghost Bride introduced me to a fascinating array of spirits, demons and gods. I would love to read more books set in Li Lan's world(s).

The Ghost Bride is a mixture of romance, mystery and history, all set in the classic Western ghost story framework. It takes place in an intersection of many things; Western and Eastern cultures, traditional and modern mores, the living and the dead. It is always these interstitial stories that make for the best reading. How much did I like this novel? Apparently I lent it to two different people at once, which led to a bit of a squabble as I only had the one copy. So maybe if you want to be more prepared than me you should pick up a few copies?

You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is the website of a designer called Ai Hasegawa who is working at the intersection of fantasy, biology, and design. She's doing some really interesting/mind-boggling work. I discovered her through her I Wanna Give Birth to... series, which looks at what would happen if a woman gave birth to an endangered animal that is considered a food source. Could someone carry a shark in their womb and then eat the shark? Instead would she feel a connection to the shark (or salmon or dolphin, etc)? Could she set it free in the ocean or would she want to have it around? These are all questions that crossed my mind when I read a short blog post about this project. You can learn more about her projects here: Be warned, her untitled video on Vimeo is possibly the most horrifying thing I've seen ever.