Hi everyone. Before I start the book review, I’d like to bring you all to hell.
The Chinese Ten Courts of Hell, that is.
This particular hell is located at Haw Par Villa, Singapore. I first entered its dark depths in August 2006, and remember recoiling in horror when I saw this:
(Even bloodier scenes can be found here.)
So what are the Ten Courts of Hell? According to Chinese mythology, souls must enter these courts to be judged for the sins they committed in the land of the living. Each court deals with different sins and punishments, and it’s only after an offending soul suffers for its crimes — examples of punishments include being thrown on spikes, boiled in oil, or sawed in half — that it can be reincarnated or sent to paradise.
That first visit to the Ten Courts of Hell truly sparked my interest in anything and everything related to the Chinese afterlife. I started paying more attention to Qingming (the Tomb Sweeping Festival) and the idea of hungry ghosts, and was especially fascinated by the concept of ghost marriages after my aunty told me this sad and spooky story: back in the sixties, her classmate’s fiancé died in a car crash. Unable to accept his demise, the girl married her deceased lover after his funeral. I obsessed over that story for days, wondering how it was possible and whether my aunty’s classmate would be able to divorce her “husband” if she fell in love again.
So, with my interest in all things spooky, you can imagine my excitement when I heard about THE GHOST BRIDE by Malaysian debut author Yangsze Choo (HarperCollins, August 2013). Set in Malacca, Malaya (what is now Melaka, Malaysia) in 1893 during British rule, the novel is about a young Straits Chinese girl named Li Lan who has lost her mother to mysterious circumstances and her father to his opium addiction. One day, her father asks if she would consider marrying Lim Tian Ching, the son of a wealthy family. There’s only one little problem — he’s as dead as my aunty’s classmate’s ghost husband.
Li Lan is understandably horrified at the thought of tying herself to a dead man she barely knew, especially someone as repugnant as Lim Tian Ching. As he forces himself into her dreams, Li Lan is pulled deeper into the mystery of why this dead boy wants her and only her as his wife. To complicate things, she feels a growing attraction to the dead boy’s very-much-alive cousin, who is now the wealthy family’s heir. And if being haunted by one ghost isn’t bad enough, she soon finds herself trapped in their world. Time is running out as she desperately tries to uncover dark secrets and fight her way back to the land of the living.
As a Malaysian, it felt like Choo was writing a personal story just for me. The sprinkling of Malay vocabulary felt like delicious candy in my mouth — I read them aloud — and though set more than a hundred years ago, I could picture it all in my head — the old Melaka streets, the Stadthuys in the town square (which I visited last September), the splendor of a grand Peranakan mansion. But Choo doesn’t leave Western readers in the dark — she gently explains things for those unfamiliar with this part of the world, and when the narrative moves to a location that is alien to everyone — the Plains of the Dead — Choo’s evocative descriptions still pulled me in and sent shivers down my back. I kept thinking of the Ten Courts of Hell pictured above. Though no part of the novel actually takes place in these courts, they are often alluded to by the lingering ghosts we encounter along the way, always with a sense of fear.
As much as I loved the Malacca setting and the spooky world Choo built, characters are what make me fall in love with a book, and here Choo succeeds as well. I grew attached to Li Lan, a young girl still finding her way in life, and loved the people rallying around her such as her spunky Amah, and Old Wong with his special vision. I appreciated that there wasn’t really a clear divide between good and evil, because two of the “villains” were ultimately flawed characters I felt sorry for.
For people who are usually too cheap to buy books, I’d say that THE GHOST BRIDE is good value for money — you get historical fiction, young adult fiction, fantasy, suspense, paranormal and multicultural fiction all in one! And, once again from a Malaysian point of view, I am so glad there is a voice like Yangsze Choo’s out there, proving that writers of Malaysian descent can make it in the Western publishing world with genre-bending narratives.
I finished THE GHOST BRIDE three days ago, and Li Lan, Tian Bai, Er Lang, Auntie Three, etc. are still alive in my head, begging for another story. Can you hear them, Ms. Choo? Must write a sequel, okay? Terima kasih!
*** Christine is now off to be a good girl to avoid punishment in the Ten Courts of Hell (gulp).