Yangsze Choo’s 2013 The Ghost Bride is a standalone novel of the supernatural.
Li Lan is the only child of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia. When the novel takes place, the British control Malacca (having taken it from the Dutch, who in turn had taken it from Portugal). The region’s colonial rulers are a fact of life, but one that is of little relevance to Li Lan’s daily life.
That life is difficult. Her mother died of smallpox. Her father survived, but with scars, inside and out. He has retreated to his study, where he smokes opium and engages in aimless scholarly pursuits. He is squandering the family fortune.
Li Lan, as the child of a well-to-do family, should have been financially secure; her family should be attempting to arrange a marriage with a young man of good family. She is neither secure nor betrothed. When her father does entertain a marriage offer, the groom is problematic. Lim Tian Ching is a scion of the well-to-do Lim family. It’s just that he’s dead.
Marrying a living person to a corpse is a practice known to several cultures; Li Lan is dealing with the Chinese version. If Li Lan agrees, she is guaranteed comfort and security in the Lim family compound; however, she must vow lifelong celibacy. She will never have children. This is not what she wants at all.
At one time the Li and the Lim families planned a marriage between Li Lan and a Lim cousin, Tian Bai. Lim Tian Ching’s death elevated Tian Bai to family heir. He’s now far too important to marry to a penniless girl from a declining family. Which is too bad, because Tian Bai is both attractive and kind. Li Lan wouldn’t have minded marrying him….
Li Lan intercedes with her father and he backs off on the proposal. The Lims apply pressure. They own her father’s debts. The opium-befuddled old scholar is wavering.
If economic pressure were not enough, Lim Tian Ching begins appearing in Li Lan’s dreams, determined to convince the pretty young woman to marry him. What he succeeds in doing is convincing Li Lan that she wouldn’t have married him even if he were alive; he’s a spoilt, self-indulgent wastrel.
Li Lan sets out to save herself from her spectral suitor. She finds herself contending with the corrupt bureaucracy of the afterlife. Not only that — her body is commandeered by an ambitious ghost.
Readers, do not fear exposure to Chinese custom, mythology, and cosmology: supplementary material explains all, in just the right amount of detail.
The Chinese afterlife as depicted in this novel does not resemble the Western Christian version, in which wealth and power count for nothing when souls are sorted into heaven and hell (and for some Christians, limbo and purgatory). The Chinese afterlife resembles mundane life: the wealthy can buy extensions and exemptions for themselves, deferring hell indefinitely. The poor (save for those who choose to serve their betters on the Plains of the Dead) are subject to immediate judgment. Oh, and afterlife bureaucrats can be bribed.
Not that the Lims get their way, despite their wealth. The family looks united from the outside, but rival wives (thanks to polygamy) are scheming to elevate their own status and that of their children, at the expense of the other wives. This makes for vicious (and in some cases, lethal) family politics.
If you’re envisioning a romantic triangle (Li Lan, Tian Bai, and Lim Tian Ching) bear in mind that Li Lan doesn’t care about Tian Bai; she barely knows him. It’s just that he’s not dead and he’s not a wanker. This is a spunky-heroine-saves-herself novel, not a romance novel.
I picked this book on a whim. When I opened it, I found this:
Clearly a sign.
The plot stumbles a bit in the middle section (when Li Lan visits the Plains of the Dead) but otherwise, this was an engaging, if somewhat bittersweet, coming-of-age story. Move Yangsze Choo onto the “track-down-more-books-by” stack.