Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hauntingly Beautiful-The Ghost Bride

Every once in a while, I get a hankering for Asian literature. When I came across the title The Ghost Bride by Yangszee Choo for the first time, my interest was piqued. I know a decent amount about Asian beliefs regarding the supernatural and the ghostly, but those beliefs are so complex and fascinating, that I'm always interested in learning more. The Ghost Bride exceeded my expectations with a richly detailed ghost realm, pulling so close at the edges of reality as Li Lan, a young Malay girl on the brink of being married to a person recently deceased, travels to the world of the dead and back. 

All of the characters, especially Li Lan, are expertly realized, and as Lelan interacts with people on both sides of the divide between the living and the dead, she grows inadvertently stronger and more self-reliant. Normally, I roll my eyes at this sort of character development, especially in females, but the context of Li Lan's world is so fixed: her future is tied to her marriage prospects, her marriage prospects are tied to her father's dwindling fortune. That leaves no room for her interests, romantic or otherwise. Sadly, this was all too real for girls brought up under China's sphere of influence at the start of the twentieth century. I heartily rooted for Li Lan's growth, vicariously proud in the end of her decisions, a far cry from the hopeless girl with little to no resources at the start of her tale. The ghostly realm brings her freedom: of movement, of fraternization with men, women, bull-headed demons, dragons...and especially, freedom of choice. Her journeys imbue a worldliness in her that sheds her cloistered naivete, and is a main thrust of the story that was infinitely fulfilling in its telling.

Image result for chinese ghost paper
Paper horses-for travelling
One of the most wonderful things of all was the description of the ghost realm and its characters. The focal point was paper, the material that funeral offerings are made of, to be subsequently burnt or otherwise offered to ancestors for their use in the underworld. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, think of an Egyptian tomb:a pharaoh takes everything with him, because he's going to need it again, death being the mirror-image of the living world. In Asian beliefs ( roughly a blend of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship), paper stand-ins are used as representations for money, clothing, food, conveyances, etc. etc. etc.

Image result for chinese ghost paper
Seeing unruly Chinese ghosts can be so much fun :
Cool Ass Cinema praising Mr. Vampire (1985)
Choo deals wonderfully with the idea of these funeral offerings as artifice: the food has no taste, the servants are mindless puppets. It's such an intricate, thickly layered world, it's hard not to lose yourself in those delicious details. They apply, too, to the characters. When the bridegroom in question gets angry, for example, the expression on his face is described in so many words as what happens when a piece of paper is scrunched and crinkled. Add to this, that I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author. Her British accent, coupled with perfect pronunciation of every Chinese name and term, resonated well with the colonial context of the story, and was as crisp as all the funeral papers she describes. I heartily recommend the audio version-it was immensely enjoyable.

The kinds of plotting that might be boring to some readers: domestic dramas between first, second, and third wives, obscured feuds, and vengeful ghosts, are as compelling here, if not more so, than in their classic iterations (I'm thinking of The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Tale of Genji). The twists and turns that the story takes are exciting and unpredictable. The same is true of the romantic...square? Yes, square. Four major players in all. How I felt about each of these characters in turn ebbed and flowed. Every twist in the story in this regard (as in all others) made perfect, organic sense. I was immensely satisfied by the resolution of the romantic strain woven throughout this story of a girl on the cusp of marriage, perhaps the most important decision in her life, and one that she has next to no control over. 

A final note: as a reader of the paranormal in general, shifters are par for the course. But a dragon shifter? A Chinese dragon? Now that, I haven't seen before. And I'll be honest, that's gonna stick with me for a while, it was so damn good.

K Rating: 10/10

**New Authors Goal: 1**

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