Opening line: One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.
Li Lan is the daughter of a respectable Chinese merchant family and, like any young woman her age, hopes for a favorable marriage. There’s only one problem: Her family is poor, so poor that the only offer she has is to be the bride of a dead man. The tradition is old, and rarely practiced, but the young man’s family pursues Li Lan despite her refusals. While his living relatives draw Li Lan into the intrigues of their family, the ghost of her prospective fiancé haunts Li Lan’s dreams in order to court her. Caught between worlds, Li Lan must navigate political and social intrigue in both the land of the living and of the dead, and, to solve more than one mystery, may have to go into Death itself.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is about the relationships between two Chinese families in late nineteenth-century Malaysia. Li Lan, the protagonist, has been chosen to be a ‘ghost bride’ for a rich family’s deceased son: This practice ensured that the deceased would still have a spouse in the afterlife once the living spouse eventually died; in the meantime, there would be someone to perform the necessary rituals to provide for the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife.
I had picked up The Ghost Bride some time ago at a used bookstore, on a whim, as I always forget the titles or names of authors I’m interested in as soon as I step into a bookstore. The premise intrigued me, and the first page effectively whetted my appetite to read more. I am also trying to be more conscious about reading science-fiction and fantasy centered in non-Western traditions and written by people of color (especially women of color). I was entranced by the descriptions of the spirit world and the tapestry of folk lore Choo presents in her novel. In addition to being fascinating culturally, the novel does everything right: the prose was beautiful, employing rich descriptions that advance the narrative instead of as info-dumps, as is often the case in author’s debut novels; the pacing was just right, neither dragging at any point nor rushing through at others; the characters were each distinct and relatable. Overall, this is a stunning debut novel and I look forward to more from this author.
Earlier this year I was looking for a novel to read alongside The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (as one would determine wine and cheese pairings): both are set in the late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth century and feature magical realism. The Golem and the Jinni also highlights non-Western folklore. I wish I had thought to read The Ghost Bride then; The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo fits perfectly alongside them.