I’ve been on a bit of a historical romance binge lately and I’ve specifically been looking for Asian authors. As soon as I saw this supernatural ghost romance I knew I had to read it and I wasn’t disappointed.
Set in Malaya in 1893, during the period of British colonial rule, the story centres on the immigrant Chinese community that settled there and held to their way of life despite the oppressive regime they lived in. Our heroine is Li Lan, a beautiful 17 year old girl who lives a life of decaying gentility due to her opium-addicted father. An offer of marriage is made by the wealthy and respectable Lim clan to marry their son. The catch is that their son is dead and Li Lan would have to live the life of a ghost bride.
Ghost marriages, in their various forms, are prominent in different cultures from all over the world. The countries most known for them are China, Sudan and India and reasons for the marriages where one or both of the spouses are dead range from religious traditions to social respectability. Li Lan’s position is that she would be able to live a better quality of life if she married into the Lim family and moved into their household.
Li Lan was innocent and naive enough to be a believable teenage girl but not so much to be annoying and have me yelling at the book (a reason I stopped reading YA about a decade ago). There were many characters that were fully rounded and likeable like the amah, the third wife, her father and villains that were sly and wicked like humanity going sour. The growing malevolence of the ghost fiancé who haunted her dreams was chillingly written and the childish cruelty of him was scarier than I had anticipated.
When I was recommended this book it was marketed as a romance and there is romance in it but it’s not even the second or third most important element of the story. The journey of the heroine, family and life after death play much more important roles and while I would have enjoyed more of the central romantic relationship, the story was strong enough to sparkle without it. I thought I knew who the romantic lead was going to be before I started reading. It was nice yet unsurprising but the actual romance was like a burst of unexpected sweetness as if I had bitten into one of the soft steamed nyonya cakes in the book.
I don’t know anything about Malaysia under colonialism but the author made the setting so atmospheric and compelling that I felt like I could smell and see the city of Malacca. The tension of the characters constricted by a western power was a faint but constant presence in the background. It wasn’t part of the plot but it was never forgotten. The descriptions of the Malaysian Chinese food were often and delicious and I always say the best stories should make you hungry. I was drooling at some of the scenes in this book.
“Steamed pomfret, the silvery sides of the fish veiled in soy sauce and shallot oil. Fried pigeons. Tender strips of jellyfish quivered under a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and I was delighted to see my favourite kerabu, a dish of fiddlehead ferns dressed with shallots, chillies and tiny dried shrimp in coconut milk.”
I am only slightly familiar with the view of the afterlife in Chinese culture but the author made it very easy to follow the logic of the world without information dumping or being patronising. The beliefs and the city of Malacca were as present as a character and it was very refreshing to read a story set in this period and have the mythology seamless weaved into the plot. A melancholy theme constantly running through the book was how rarely love lasts after death and the great barrier between the dead and the living. The ghosts rely on the living, mostly their loved ones, having faith and loving them enough to burn offerings for them in the afterlife. Lack of belief, meanness or the fading of feelings often leaves the ghosts poor and hungry as they hang onto the pride of having a paper horse or servant that was burnt for them.
The ending was very abrupt, so much so that I was quite taken aback and had to check that I hadn’t accidentally missed out a chapter. It looks a bit like its the opening for a sequel novel which I would welcome but if this is a standalone I am disappointed. The readability of this story is very very high. By halfway through I was fully emerged and even when I stopped reading for breaks I was thinking of the story. The book was light enough that I probably won’t go for a re-read until I’ve forgotten the plot but I would definitely read another book by this author.