By Amy Krivoshik
In Chinese folklore, ghost marriages were thought to appease restless spirits. In a ghost marriage, a dead concubine could become a wife, or two lovers could be united after their deaths. And, in the most unusual types of ghost marriage, a living bride could wed the ghost of a deceased husband.
In her dually captivating and frightening 2013 novel, The Ghost Bride, debut author Yangsze Choo explores the rare and ancient practice of ghost marriages. The Ghost Bride’s vivid setting and persuasive voice envelop readers in mysteries that plague the living and the dead.
Set in 1893 in Malaya, The Ghost Bride is told in the unwavering voice of Li Lan, a young woman who is reluctantly drawn into the parallel world of the Chinese folkloric tradition. The story opens when Li Lan’s reclusive, opium-addicted father calls her into his study. He informs her that the prosperous Lim family has offered her the hand of their son, Lim Tian Ching. A marriage into the Lim family would provide Li Lan with wealth and high social status. But there is one additional detail: Lim Tian Ching died several months ago. The Lim family is asking her to become a ghost bride.
When the ghost of Lim Tian Ching begins to both haunt Li Lan’s waking hours and to appear in her dreams, The Ghost Bride quickly becomes an unsettling adventure. Li Lan accidentally enters the eerie, dreamlike world of ancient Malaysian folklore as she tries to evade, and understand, her Lim Tian Ching. And as Li Lan is drawn in to a parallel world of hungry ghosts and ox-headed demons, The Ghost Bride quickly escalates into a gripping, ghostly mystery.
Li Lan’s persuasive voice carries the story seamlessly between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the ghostly shade of Malaya that Li Lan experiences, starving spirits have no real bodies to nourish, long shining golden threads connect people to the ones they love, burnt offerings materialize in the spirit world and corrupt border officials patrol the gates of hell.
The historic Malaya of 1893 slides in and out of focus as The Ghost Bride reveals an eerie depth to Li Lan’s city. The imperfect and unjust portrayal of the folkloric after world into which Li Lan journeys in The Ghost Bride is one of the most intriguing, and unsettling, aspects of the story. The world of ghosts reflects the living world in its horrors. And the corruption that Li Lan witnesses in the afterlife of Malaysian folklore reflects the corruption and injustice that Li Lan finds in the living world. In this ghostly realm, it is still possible to die, to starve and to wither away. The horrors of the ghost world render Li Lan’s plight to return to her own world all the more urgent.
The characters that Li Lan encounters are similarly compelling and unnerving. Li Lan meets jealous Fan, a spirit lover who continues to feed off of her beloved’s qi, or life force. She meets Er Lang, a mysterious border official who refuses to take off his hat for fear that Li Lan would “never treat me the same way again.” And, finally, Li Lan searches for her mother, who died when she was an infant, and whose true identity Li Lan cannot be sure of.
“We don’t use names here,” a ghost tells Li Lan. “My grandchildren want to think that I’m enjoying the afterlife and I want to preserve that illusion.”
Li Lan’s chilling journey into the intricate illusions of the world of Chinese folklore renders The Ghost Bride a truly enthralling read.
— By Amy Krivoshik, Contributing Writer