White Ghost Girls

White Ghost Girls

by Alice Greenway


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Summer 1967. The turmoil of the Maoist revolution is spilling over into Hong Kong and causing unrest as war rages in neighboring Vietnam. White Ghost Girls is the story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters living in a foreign land in a chaotic time. With their war-photographer father off in Vietnam, Marianne, their beautiful but remote mother, keeps the family close by. Although bound by a closeness of living overseas, the sisters could not be more different — Frankie pulses with curiosity and risk, while Kate is all eyes and ears. Marianne spends her days painting watercolors of the lush surroundings, leaving the girls largely unsupervised, while their Chinese nanny, Ah Bing, does her best to look after them. One day in a village market, they decide to explore — with tragic results. In Alice Greenway’s exquisite gem of a novel, two girls tumble into their teenage years against an extraordinary backdrop both sensuous and dangerous. This astonishing literary debut is a tale of sacrifice and solidarity that gleams with the kind of intense, complicated love that only exists between sisters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802170187
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/09/2006
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 541,307
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


What can you give me? Can you give me a back alley, a smoke-filled temple where white-hooded mourners burn offerings and wail for the dead? The single chime of a high-pitched temple bell? The knocking of a wooden fish?

Can you give me hot rain, mould-streaked walls, a sharpness that creeps into my clothes, infests my books? The smells of dried oysters, clove hair oil, tiger balm, joss burning to Kuan Yin in the back room of a Chinese amah? The feverish shriek of cicadas, the cry of black-eared kites? The translucent green of sun shining through elephant ear leaves?

Can you give me a handful of coloured silk? An empty pack of cigarettes? A tape recorder? Narrow, stepped streets, balconies hung with shop signs, laundry strung on bamboo poles, rattan birdcages? A ripened pomelo split open? The chalky bone of cuttlefish?

Can you give me my father's hand in mine, Frankie's in the other? Then take everything and go away?

Because if you can't, it's not enough. And if you can, I might leave anyhow. I'll head for cover. Disappear in jungles of triple canopy.

~ ~ ~

Out in the harbour, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbour Star Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon, never having to turn around. The fishermen load each tiny paper boat with some tea leaves, a drop of cooking oil, a spoonful of rice, a splash of petrol before setting it afloat.

Boats for the lost at sea, for the drowned. They hire musicians to clang cymbals. Children throw burning spirit-money into the waves. This summer, the one I'm going to tell you about, is the only time that matters. It's the time I'll think of when I'm dying, just as another might recall a lost lover or regret a love they never had. For me, there is one story. It's my sister's -- Frankie's.

~ ~ ~

'Touched you last,' Frankie taunts. She runs out across the beach. Arms waving, shouting Indian war whoops, she plunges into the warm, green waves. Dares me to follow. Shaking off the stupor of the heat, I dash out after her.

Inside our shack, it's hot and close. Rank smells of sea salt, mould, sand. Air so wet, it trickles down the creases of our skin. Pools collect in the bends of our arms, behind our knees. Waves lap. Cicadas shriek. Barnacles and snails, stranded above the tide line, clamp tightly to rocks.

Frankie feeds me roe she's extracted from the belly of a purple-spined sea urchin, the way the boatman Ah Wong has taught us. I lick the soft yellow eggs off her finger. The taste is raw and salty-smooth. It's how explorers, castaways survive: Magellan, Columbus, Crusoe, eating the flesh of wild sea turtles, mangy gulls. Sometimes we dive for rubbery black sea slugs. Frankie squeezes one, shooting me with a film of sticky innards. It's the creature's only means of defence. It takes them a full year to rearm.

~ ~ ~

We're already too old for this, our games of castaway. We take them up self-consciously. Construct our shacks of flotsam and jetsam: rope, tin, fishing-net, Styrofoam, driftwood. Drag our finds back from rocks along the shore, step barefoot on crusty barnacles, rough granite, through tidal pools harbouring crabs and limpets. At the back of the beach, sharp vines clasp at our skin: vitex, rattlebox, morning glory. They criss-cross our ankles with scratches and scabs. Calluses grow thick on the soles of our feet. Startled, an ungainly coucal crashes through the undergrowth. Its echoing, whooping cry sounds like a monkey rather than a bird.

Then again, it's in our nature to gather, to scavenge. My mother hoards tubes of paints, charcoal pencils, erasers, inks, pens. Stores them in art boxes and Chinese baskets piled in her room with hard blocks of watercolour paper. My father keeps war relics in his darkroom, treasures my mother doesn't like to see: slivers of shrapnel he dug out of his leg, a grenade pin, a smuggled AK-47 stashed under the basin. A string of tiny temple bells that jangle on the door so you have to open it slowly, carefully, if you don't want anyone to hear you. A thin, tattered Vietnamese-English dictionary.

Secretly foraging, Frankie and I discover the Vietnamese words for nationalism and People's Democratic Revolution, dialectic materialism and exploitation. We find words for blood transfusion, guerrilla warfare and napalm. A bomb exploded and killed many people: Bom nô gi ´ êt ch ´ êt nhi`êu ngu'ò'i. Words for utopia, không tu'o'ng, and sexual intercourse, gió'i tính. We pronounce them phonetically, like witches' spells. We look at the pictures my father's taken. Photographs of war.

~ ~ ~

Secret sisters. Shipwrecked sisters. Viet Cong sisters is what we call ourselves.

Frankie's back is strong and dark. She ties her long brown hair in two braids. Although our mother pleads with her to wear a top, she swims only in cut-off shorts. Maybe she's not ready to grow up. More likely, she wants to upset our mother. Her breasts are already full and round, like mangosteens. They bounce when she runs. Voluptuous is the word McKenna used when he and my father last came out of Saigon. It made my mother wince.

Me, I am thinner, leaner. Miró or Giacometti, my mother calls me. My hair is fair and cropped like a boy. It mats to my head with sea salt. I wear a threadbare blue-and-white bikini, hiding pointy, childish nipples. My skin is sunburned. When my father takes photos of me, I stare straight at the camera. I am twelve, nearly thirteen.

'Come, Kate,' Frankie calls me from the sea. I sprint. Feet, knees, legs fly across the sand, batter through the warm water. A wave rises up and slaps hard against my chest, then sweeps back, scratching my ankles with island sand, pulls as if to drag me down. I dive.

Underwater, it's cooler, quieter, green-blue. Purple-black sea urchins cling to rocks. Rough-skinned starfish stretch their arms in every direction. Fish dart past, swept along by the wash of waves. A pink sea anemone shudders fleshy tentacles. I hear the throbbing whine of a boat engine, an ancient kaido ferrying passengers to Yung Shue Wan, on the opposite end of Lamma Island.

Frankie grins, swims off; her arms pull broad, strong strokes, skimming the sandy bottom. I swim as fast as I can, knowing I won't beat her. Hold my breath until my chest aches, then kick to the surface, gasp in air. Frankie is faster, bigger, stronger. But she's also more needy. She needs my participation, my surrender in order to assert herself.

Breathless, I flip over. Floating upward, I dip my head back so the water licks my forehead. My eyes squint in the sun. From here, our shack looks like one of the squatter huts that catch fire or collapse down the muddy slopes of Hong Kong in sudden landslips.

Or maybe it's a Cubist painting in one of my mother's art books: a collage of forgotten items tacked on a cork-board. The Chinese believe dragons lie curled asleep under these hills. Construction of new roads, the digging of foundations for apartment buildings can cut into the creatures' flesh. The earth bleeds red ochre. Then the great beasts must be appeased, offerings made, to avoid disease, bankruptcy or sudden, unexplained death. These bare, knobby hills are a dragon's vertebrae, spinal humps that might plunge under at any time, sucking us down with them.

All Hong Kong's islands look this way. Their forests cut down for firewood and shipbuilding. Their fertile valleys flooded at the end of the Ice Age, leaving steep mountains jutting out of the sea.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Lloyd Parry. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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White Ghost Girls 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this story of two teenaged girls and their struggle for independence while seeking attention and support. I think it is a timeless story and one that has entered my thoughts many times since my reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent story of two sisters spending the summer in Hong Kong with their mother while their father is in Veitnam. It is about the turmoil of a family, I would highly recommend this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story of the two sisters and that fateful summer is haunting. These sisters try to understand what is not being said to them by their parents (about the war their father covers and why their mother stays in Hong Kong), and then what they are not saying to each other. In the end, the secrets the sisters never share, shatters the family.
aahlvers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenaway is a haunting story about two sisters growing up in Hong Kong. This is another book that I am still thinking about. The younger sister is the narrator and so we see the older sister's actions through a bit of a filter. It has me thinking about the details that were left out that would explain why the older sister acted the way she did. In addition, this author has a poetic way with words. Every once in a while I would stop and reread a sentence or paragraph not for content but because of the way the words flowed on the page.
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