The Ghost Bride: A Novel

Overview

A wondrous coming-of-age story infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, adventure, and fascinating, dreamlike twists

Malaya, 1893 Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt Chinese family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives a proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, ghost marriages are often meant to placate a ...

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The Ghost Bride: A Novel

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Overview

A wondrous coming-of-age story infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, adventure, and fascinating, dreamlike twists

Malaya, 1893 Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt Chinese family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives a proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, ghost marriages are often meant to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a comfortable home for the rest of her days, but at what cost?

As she reluctantly considers the offer, Li Lan is unwillingly drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities and vengeful spirits. There 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

When Li Lan agrees to become the ghost bride of a deceased man, she knows that the marriage will secure her previously uncertain future: For the rest of her life, she will reside in the home of his wealthy Chinese parents. But this bargain comes with a high price: In dreams every night, she wrestles in the afterlife with his unquiet spirit. To bring peace to herself and justice to her ghostly spouse, she must unknot the secrets behind his abbreviated life and mysterious demise.

Booklist
“Choo’s remarkably strong and arresting first novel…is sure to garner much well-deserved attention.”
San Jose Mercury News
“Captivating epic . . . [this] impressive first novel takes readers on one of the wildest rides since Alice fell down the rabbit hole.”
New York Journal of Books
“Li Lan’s odyssey keeps her on the brink of earthly demise and keeps the reader riveted to the page . . .”
Bookreporter.com
“Unlike any book I’ve ever experienced, with its meld of historical fiction coupled with a fascinating culture, murder mystery, the wandering of spirits of the dead and not-so-dead, romance, and adventures in the afterworld . . . one revelatory experience after another.”
Publishers Weekly
In her debut novel, Choo tells the unlikely story of a young Chinese woman who marries a dead man. No, this is not a tale of vampires or zombies, but of an ancient custom among the Chinese in Malaysia called “spirit marriage.” Set in 1893 colonial Malacca, the novel follows 17-year-old Li Lan, who, like other young women her age, hopes for a lucky and prosperous marriage. The wealthy Lim family’s proposal seems to be a great stroke of luck—until Li discovers that their son, Lim Tian Ching, is already dead, stricken by fever months ago. Li’s father refuses the offer, but even the prospect of marriage forces her to confront the fact that she and her father are in danger of losing the comfortable middle-class life they once enjoyed. Madam Lim presses her case during the day, Lim Tian haunts Li’s dreams from the afterlife, and she pines for another suitor altogether—Lim’s cousin Tian Bai. When Li falls ill, she plunges into the world of the Chinese afterlife, complete with ghost cities, servants, and its own bureaucracy. Choo’s clear and charming style creates an alternate reality where the stakes are just as high as in the real world, combining grounded period storytelling with the supernatural. Agent: Jenny Bent, Bent Agency. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Li Lan is from an upper-class but financially destitute Chinese family in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia). When the wealthy Lim family proposes that she enter into a spirit marriage with their recently deceased son, she reluctantly accepts, because it means she will never want for another earthly thing. But the union soon plunges Li into a dream world where nothing is as it seems and anything can happen. In order to make her way back to the land of the living, Li must uncover deeply buried secrets about her own family’s past and an ancient connection between her family and the Lims.

Verdict Choo’s first novel explores in a delicate and thought-provoking way the ancient custom of spirit marriages, which were thought to appease restless spirits. Reminiscent of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, this debut is sure to be a hit with supernatural and historical fiction fans alike. [See Prepub Alert, 2/18/13.]—Caitlin Bronner, MLIS, Pratt Inst., Brooklyn
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
A young woman risks giving up the ghost as she roams the afterlife in Choo's fascinating debut set in 1893 colonial Malaya. Young Li Lan's family was once rich and respected, but since her mother succumbed to smallpox when she was 4, her father, scarred from his own near-fatal struggle with the illness, has squandered the family fortune in a haze of opium. But she's still shocked and disturbed when her father asks her if she'll consent to become a ghost bride to the dead son of Malacca's wealthiest family, the Lims. Marriage to a dead man isn't exactly what Li Lan had in mind when she dreamed of her future, but after a visit to the Lim mansion, she does, indeed, dream of the dead son. Actually, the dreams are more nightmares since Lim Tian Ching is pretty creepy and persistent in his pursuit of Li Lan. He also informs Li Lan that his cousin, Tian Bai, the current heir--to whom she's attracted--murdered him. The dreams, which haven't exactly been conducive to a good night's sleep, take a toll on Li Lan's health, and she finally admits to her amah that she's being visited by ghosts. Her amah takes Li Lan to a medium, who supplies her with potions. After taking more than the recommended dosage, Li Lan's spirit leaves her near-lifeless body and enters the land of the dead and the near-dead, where she finds that most ghosts are pretty rude and uncivil. As she attempts to discover the true nature of Lim Tian Ching's death, Li Lan enlists the assistance of a selfish spirit named Fan who guides her to the Plains of the Dead. Her investigation into the Lim household is fraught with danger as Li Lan's spirit becomes weaker and she tries to avoid vicious ox-headed demons, Lim Tian Ching and other ghosts who wish her harm. But she's not totally alone: A mysterious stranger in a broad-brimmed hat, an elderly-appearing servant and a cool steed help her. Choo's multifaceted tale is sometimes difficult to follow with its numerous characters and subplots, but the narrative is so rich in Chinese folklore, mores and the supernatural that it's nonetheless intriguing and enlightening. A haunting debut.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062227331
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/5/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 574,842
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time).

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Read an Excerpt

Malaya 1893





One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride. Asked is perhaps not the right word. We were in his study. I was leafing through a newspaper, my father lying on his rattan daybed. It was very hot and still. The oil lamp was lit and moths fluttered through the humid air in lazy swirls.

"What did you say?"

My father was smoking opium. It was his first pipe of the evening, so I presumed he was relatively lucid. My father, with his sad eyes and skin pitted like an apricot kernel, was a scholar of sorts. Our family used to be quite well off, but in recent years we had slipped until we were just hanging on to middle-class respectability.

"A ghost bride, Li Lan."

I held my breath as I turned a page. It was hard to tell when my father was joking. Sometimes I wasn't sure even he was entirely certain. He made light of serious matters, such as our dwindling income, claiming that he didn't mind wearing a threadbare shirt in this heat. But at other times, when the opium enveloped him in its hazy embrace, he was silent and distracted.

"It was put to me today," he said quickly. "I thought you might like to know."

"Who asked?"

"The Lim family."

The Lim family was among the wealthiest households in our town of Malacca. Malacca was a port, one of the oldest trading settlements in the East. In the past few hundred years, it had passed through Portuguese, Dutch, and finally British rule. A long, low cluster of red-tiled houses, it straggled along the bay, flanked by groves of coconut trees and backed inland by the dense jungle that covered Malaya like a rolling green ocean. The town of Malacca was very still, dreaming under the tropical sun of its past glories, when it was the pearl of port cities along the Straits. With the advent of steamships, however, it had fallen into graceful decline.

Yet compared to the villages in the jungle, Malacca remained the epitome of civilization. Despite the destruction of the Portuguese fort, we had a post office, the Stadthuys city hall, two markets, and a hospital. We were in fact the seat of British administration for the state. Still, when I compared it to what I had read of the great cities of Shanghai, Calcutta, or London, I was sure it was quite insignificant. London, as the District Office once told our cook's sister, was the center of the world. The heart of a great and glittering empire that stretched so far from east to west that the sun never set on it. From that far-off island (very damp and cold, I heard), we in Malaya were ruled.

But though many races—Malay, Chinese, and Indian, with a sprinkling of Arab and Jewish traders—had settled here for generations, we kept our own practices and dress. And though my father could speak Malay and some English, he still looked to China for his books and papers. Never mind that it was my grandfather who left his native soil to make his fortune trading here. It was too bad that the money had dwindled under my father's hands. Otherwise I don't think he would even have considered the Lim family's offer.

"They had a son who died a few months ago. A young man named Lim Tian Ching—do you remember him?"

Lim Tian Ching was someone I had seen perhaps once or twice at some festival. Apart from the name of his wealthy clan, he had left no impression at all. "Surely he was very young?"

"Not much older than you, I believe."

"What did he die of?"

"A fever, they say. In any case, he is the bridegroom." My father spoke carefully, as though he was already regretting his words.

"And they want me to marry him?"

Distracted, I knocked over the inkstone on his desk, its contents spilling onto the newspaper in an ominous black stain. This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to a wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence.

My father rubbed his face. He was once, so I was told, a very handsome man until he contracted smallpox. Within two weeks his skin became as thick as a crocodile's hide and scarred with a thousand craters. Once gregarious, he retired from the world, let the family business be run by outsiders, and immersed himself in books and poems. Perhaps things might have been better had my mother not died during the same outbreak, leaving me behind at the tender age of four. The smallpox passed me by with only one scar behind my left ear. At the time, a fortune-teller predicted that I would be lucky, but perhaps he was simply being optimistic.

"Yes, it is you that they want."

"Why me?"

"All I know is that they asked if I had a daughter named Li Lan and if you were married yet."

"Well, I don't think it would suit me at all." I scrubbed fiercely at the ink on the table, as though I could wipe away the topic of conversation. And how had they known my name?

I was about to ask when my father said, "What, you don't want to be a widow at almost eighteen? Spend your life in the Lim mansion wearing silk? But you probably wouldn't be allowed any bright colors." He broke into his melancholy smile. "Of course I didn't accept. How would I dare? Though if you didn't care for love or children, it might not be so bad. You would be housed and clothed all the days of your life."

"Are we so poor now?" I asked. Poverty had been looming over our household for years, like a wave that threatened to break.

"Well, as of today we can no longer buy ice."

You could buy a block of ice from the British store, packed tightly in sawdust and wrapped in brown paper. It was a cargo remnant, having come by steamer all the way from halfway round the world, where clean ice was stowed in the hold to preserve fresh food. Afterward, the blocks were sold off to anyone who wanted a piece of the frozen West. My amah told me how in earlier days, my father had bought a few exotic fruits for my mother. A handful of apples and pears grown under temperate skies. I had no recollection of such events, although I loved to chip at our occasional purchases of ice, imagining that I too had journeyed to the frigid wastes.

I left him to the rest of his opium pipe. As a child, I spent hours standing in his study, memorizing poetry or grinding ink for him to practice his calligraphy, but my embroidery skills were poor and I had little idea of how to run a household, all things that would make me a better wife. My amah did what she could, but there were limits to her knowledge. I often used to fantasize about what life would have been like had my mother lived.

As I left the room, Amah pounced on me. She had been waiting outside and gave me quite a fright. "What was it your father wanted to ask you?"

My amah was very tiny and old. She was so small that she was almost like a child—a very opinionated and despotic one who nonetheless loved me with all her heart. She was my mother's nurse before me and by right should have retired long ago, but still she puttered around the house in her black trousers and white blouse like a clockwork toy.

"Nothing," I said.

"Was it a marriage offer?" For someone who claimed to be old and deaf she had surprisingly sharp hearing. A cockroach couldn't skitter across a dark room without her stamping it out.

"Not really." As she looked unconvinced, I said, "It was more like a joke."

"A joke? Since when has your marriage been a joke? Marriage is very important to a woman. It determines her whole future, her life, her children . . . "

"But this wasn't a real marriage."

"A concubine? Someone wants you to be his concubine?" She shook her head. "No, no, Little Miss. You must be a wife. Number one wife if possible."

"It was not to be a concubine."

"Then who was it from?"

"The Lim family."

Her eyes widened until she resembled one of those saucer-eyed jungle lemurs. "The Lim family! Oh! Little Miss, it was not for nothing that you were born as beautiful as a butterfly," and so on and so forth. I listened with some amusement and irritation as she continued to list many good qualities that she had never bothered to mention to me before, until she came to an abrupt halt. "Didn't the son of the Lim family die? There is a nephew, though. He will inherit, I suppose."

"No, it was a proposal for the son," I said with some reluctance, feeling as though I was betraying my father by admitting he had even entertained such an outrageous thought. Her reaction was just as expected. What could my father be thinking of? How dare the Lims insult our family?

"Don't worry, Amah. He's not going to accept."

"You don't understand! This is very unlucky. Don't you know what it means?" Her small frame quivered. "Your father should never have mentioned this to you, even as a joke."

"I'm not upset." I crossed my arms.

"Aiya, if only your mother were here! Your father has gone too far this time."

Despite my attempts to reassure Amah, I felt uneasy as I went to bed, shielding my lamp against the flickering shadows. Our house was large and old, and since our financial decline had not had one-tenth of the servants needed to fully staff it. In my grandfather's day it was filled with people. He had a wife, two concubines, and several daughters. The only surviving son, however, was my father. Now the wives were dead and gone. My aunts were married off long ago, and my cousins, whom I had played with as children, had moved to Penang when that side of the family relocated. As our fortunes dwindled, more and more rooms were shuttered up. I seemed to recall the bustle of guests and servants, but that must have been before my father withdrew from the world and allowed himself to be cheated by his business partners. Amah occasionally talked about those times, but she always ended up cursing my father's folly, his wicked friends, and ultimately the god of smallpox who allowed all this to happen.

I was not sure that I believed in a god of smallpox. It didn't seem right to me that a god should stoop himself to go around blowing smallpox in through windows and doors at people. The foreign doctors at the hospital talked about disease and quarantining outbreaks, an explanation that seemed far more reasonable to me. Sometimes I thought I would become a Christian, like the English ladies who went to the Anglican Church every Sunday. I had never been, but it looked so peaceful from the outside. And their graveyard, with its neat green sward and tidy gravestones under the frangipani trees seemed a far more comfortable place than the wild Chinese cemeteries perched on hillsides.

We went to the cemetery on Qing Ming, the festival of the dead, to sweep the graves, honor our ancestors, and offer food and incense. The graves were made like small houses or very large armchairs, with wings on either side to encompass a central tablet and small altar. The paths up the hills were overgrown with weeds and lalang, the sharp elephant grass that cuts you if you ran your finger along it. All around were abandoned graves that people had forgotten or which had no more descendants to care for them. The thought of having to pay my respects as the widow to a stranger made me shudder. And what exactly did marrying a ghost entail? My father had treated it as a joke. Amah had not wanted to say—she was so superstitious that naming something was as good as making it come true. As for myself, I could only hope that I would never need to know.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Yangsze Choo, Author of The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride centers on a girl who marries the ghost of a wealthy family's recently deceased son. Can you please explain the concept of a "ghost marriage"? When did you first become intrigued by this practice?

I think I was vaguely aware of this practice as a child. My grandmother lived in a small town in Malaysia opposite an old cinema that often showed scary Chinese movies. We children were not allowed to go and watch them, although from the front window we could see people lining up to go in. I remember the gigantic cinema posters that would cover the billboard in front. In those days, they were all hand painted so that they looked even more lurid - both fascinating and forbidden to us!

The folk tradition of marriages to ghosts, or between ghosts, usually occurred in order to placate spirits or repair familial relations. There are a number of allusions to it in Chinese literature, but its roots seem to lie in ancestor worship. Matches were sometimes made between two deceased persons, with the families on both sides recognizing it as a tie between them. However, there were other cases when a living person was married to the dead. These tended to be the fulfillment of a dying sweetheart's wish, or to give the rank of wife to a concubine who had borne a son. Sometimes, an impoverished girl was taken into a household as a widow in order to perform the ancestral rites for a man who died without a wife or descendants. This is the case for Li Lan, the main character in my book.

More recently, however, one of the things that sparked this novel was a sentence in an old newspaper article. While researching another book I was writing, I happened to go through the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper and found a brief mention of spirit marriages that offhandedly declared them "increasingly rare." At first, I wondered what this referred to, and then I realized that it must be the folk superstition of marriages to the dead. This was so intriguing that I ended up putting aside my first book to write this one instead.

The Ghost Bride delves deeply into the complex world of the afterlife as it's understood in Chinese culture. In what ways does this supernatural element compare to fantasy, and in what ways is it different?

There's a long Chinese literary tradition of tales set in the blurred borderline between spirits and humans, where beautiful women turn out to be foxes, and the afterlife is run like a monstrous parody of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy. When I was a child, I loved reading such stories and was always intensely curious, imagining if these things actually happened. How would you feel if the pretty girl you picked up had no feet, or the palace you visited was actually a beehive?

In this sense, it is fantasy. A very rich and curious Chinese mythology that I'd love to introduce readers to. In fact, when I was growing up, there were lots of old comic books about swordsmen who could fly, had amazing powers, and battled with deities. I don't know where these comics came from - possibly Hong Kong? They were thin, cheaply printed, and had black and white illustrations of old fashioned scholars and heavenly maidens. The ink came off on your hands and had a distinctive smell. I remember struggling to read the more complicated Chinese characters, and even painstakingly looking them up so that I could continue the story. My textbooks at school were never as interesting!

At the same time, my book is also concerned with how these supernatural beliefs are part of the everyday life of the characters. The Chinese concept of the afterlife, with its elements of Buddhism and Taoism mixed with folk religion, is taken quite seriously and still practiced today. For example, the burning of paper effigies as offerings to the dead, and the idea that the afterlife still requires pocket money, cars, and even modern day offerings such as paper iPhones and Gameboys. On a recent trip to Singapore, I noticed that there were even paper replica chickens sold in sets of three and realistically rendered so that you could tell what flavors they were (plain boiled, soy sauce, and roast).

How is The Ghost Bride similar and/or different from the stories you were told when you were young?

Most of the classic Chinese literary stories about ghosts are actually about young men, usually scholars, to whom all these strange things happened. The archetype would be "Once, there was a poor scholar, who was studying alone at night when there was a knock on the door..." Of course, he opens it to find a beautiful girl who turns out to be either a ghost, a fox, or a flower spirit. All sorts of trials ensue, usually with the not-so-subtle warning that you shouldn't be tempted away from your studies!

In my case, I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of a girl. Respectable women, even in late 1890s colonial Malaya, still had fairly restrictive lives. I was captivated with the idea of parallel worlds. You see it in the world of the living vs. the elaborate Chinese afterlife, where there are ghostly mansions made of burned paper offerings, and also in the way that the main character Li Lan develops as she moves from being alive to being partially dead herself. Despite the misery of the second situation, I think it's interesting that she's far freer wandering around in the spirit world than she ever is in the real world.

How do you feel your lead character, Li Lan, conforms to and breaks some of the expectations of her in her time?

That's a great question, because it sometimes bothers me when historical characters have completely modern sensibilities. I think it's natural that Li Lan should be concerned with the conventions and aspirations of her time. She understands very well that it's important for her to get married and not only that, but to make the best match possible. It reminds me of Jane Austen, where all the women are deeply concerned about marriage. There's no suggestion that Elizabeth Bennett desires, for example, the right to vote. She (and her mother and sisters) are focused on marrying well because it has immediate ramifications for their lives.

At the same time, Li Lan is a girl who wants to travel. She wants to visit other countries and see new sights, but she's hampered by social and financial restraints. I thought about those incredibly detailed 19th-century armchair traveler's books like Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which were written for people who had no chance to go on such voyages. There was probably a real hunger for such experiences that couldn't be satisfied even fifty, let alone a hundred years ago. In Li Lan's case, she gets her wish but her travels turn out to be to the shadowy Chinese afterworld, in the grey border between spirits and humans. It's a terrifying place, yet full of strange beauty.

You have an amazing blog where you talk about your writing process, being a mom and wife, and all about your life as a foodie. Did research for The Ghost Bride introduce you to any new favorite foods?

Oh dear, I was forced to write large sections of the book late at night, because it was the only time that my kids weren't charging around the house. Unfortunately, it was also when I would start feeling terribly hungry. There were sections of the book that we had to remove during editing because they were just descriptions of food. Glossy fried rice. Succulent cockles dipped in chili sauce and lime juice. Ikan pari (skate) grilled in banana leaves over a smoky charcoal fire.

Since I was writing about colonial Malaya in the 1890s, I spent a lot of time thinking about the sort of food that I'd eaten during my childhood. Women in those days spent most of their time in the kitchen, probably because they led these constrained lives. I remember flipping through my mum's old cookbooks and finding a recipe for duck that involved deboning it, stuffing it and doing all sorts of complicated things. When I got to the bit that said "the next day, take the duck..." I gave up.

That's not to say that I don't want to eat that sort of time-consuming cuisine. I do! Just as much as I want to eat noodles that have been flash-fried in a cast-iron wok, preferably over a roaring gas inferno. But since I couldn't get hold of any of this at 11 p.m. at night, I ate a lot of dark chocolate and Manchego cheese instead.

You've mentioned in other interviews that you were researching another book when you became inspired to write this one. Are you back to work on a second novel and if so, does it also delve into Chinese culture?

I'm currently at work on a second novel about sacred tigers, although I'm a bit stumped right now. That's the problem with writing by the seat of your pants. It's either very good going, or it's horrible. This book is also set in colonial Malaya, but in the 1920s instead. I think I still have a lot of Chinese and Southeast Asian stories to tell, as this part of the world is very dear to me and I feel that I can write authentically about it.

Who have you discovered lately?

I just finished a book by Yoko Ogawa, called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. They are beautifully creepy short stories, in which the protagonist in one tale becomes a bystander in another so that all the stories are linked in the end. It's the kind of book that makes you want to rush out and write your own take on, for example, carrots that look like human hands.

Another book that I love is Viktor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which (contrary to appearances) is not a zombie thriller. Instead, it's a bitingly funny satire about the Russian oligarchy and the oil industry. I keep telling people it's brilliant, combining elements of Russian folktales with Wong Kar Wai's movies, but the words "satire" and "oligarchy" seem to put them off for some reason!

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