Title: The Ghost Bride
Author: Yangsze Choo
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical
The Ghost Bride initially piqued my interest when I saw the development of the Netflix series based on this book started going around Twitter last year. And then, when I I attended a Big Bad Wolf sale in Manila last 2019, I was lucky to stumble upon a paperback copy of the book. It was stuck in the back of my TBR pile for so long but this quarantine proved lucky as I was able to pick it up due to general boredom. I gotta say, if I’d have known that it would be so wonderful, I should’ve picked it up a lot earlier.
“One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride…“
Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever. (via Goodreads)
Set in 1890s Colonial Malacca, this tells the story of daughter of a bankrupt family that suddenly received an unusual request: a ghost marriage. It was proposed by one of the most prominent families in their town. She found herself being haunted by the recently-dead spoiled son of the Lim family, Lim Tian Ching, while slowly falling in love with the Lim family’s new heir, Tian Bai. She desperately wanted to rid herself of Lim Tian Ching – meeting Er Lang along the way, a mysterious guardian spirit that dabbles in the world of the living and otherwise. This story is a mix of romance, adventure, murder mystery – with a hefty serving of family drama and lore on the side. It’s like an elaborate Asian soap opera peppered with paranormal elements and I loved every minute of it.
A mix of lore and tradition
While I must admit that the concept of “ghost brides” are foreign to me, it was such a fascinating topic that one couldn’t help but explore a little further. From what I’ve read, ghost marriage is a tradition in which one or both parties are dead – for various reasons, ranging from fulfilling a wish from the after-world to ensuring that no younger brother would be married before an older one . Reading the author’s note revealed that ghost marriages are more prominent in overseas Chinese communities, specifically in SEA and Taiwan.
Malaya was full of the ghosts and superstitions of the many races that peopled it.
Filipino culture is deeply influenced by the Chinese – and it also holds true to almost all Asian cultures (especially in East and South East, that I know of, since these are the cultures I am mostly exposed to) – so there are a lot things that I deeply recognize and understand. Enduring filial piety. The love of food. Devotion to the dead (even long after they passed). Marriage and family. The emphasis of appearance. These concepts still endure, too ingrained in the very vein of Asian societies. I am sure it would be a different experience to each reader but reading through the traditions and superstitions embedded in this book has been sort of cathartic.
Societal pressure for women and toxic patriarchy
I had few marriage prospects, and would be doomed to the half-life of spinsterhood. Without a husband, I would sink further into the genteel poverty, bereft of even the comfort and respect of being a mother.
Throughout the narrative, it was emphasized how important it is for a woman to be married. It is so unthinkable that stories of unmarried women who were doomed to lead a life of a spinster almost serve as cautionary tales, prompting efforts to get good matches for young ladies of marriageable age. It is considered the duty of the family to build relationships and connections to secure the future of their daughters. Studying for women are frowned upon. Women are seen as only wives and mothers – and anything otherwise is considered a disgrace. “Women had little security other than jewelry. So even the poorest among us sported gold chains, earrings, and rings as their insurance.” It is a cruel image, but sadly true. During that time, the only way for a woman to live in comfort is to marry well.
If I were a man and found a serving girl who pleased me, no one would stop me from buying her if she was indentured. Men did so everyday. It was far more difficult for women.
“A man can have concubines. In fact, it is his duty and his reward.”
The statements above enforce the privilege of men, as observed by Li Lan. I was raised in a culture of monogamy so maybe this is me being being biased towards the idea… but the idea that men consider having –“taking” – concubines as a duty and a reward just illustrates the internalized entitlement in a society that inherently favors the patriarchy and considers women as less.
Enduring corruption even in afterlife
I never really understood the practice of burning funeral offerings but this story gives it sense. Per Yangsze Choo’s author notes, there are several Chinese supernatural stories that describe “a bureaucratic afterlife closely modeled upon the traditional official bureaucracy. Thus, in many tales Hell is governed by corrupt and inept officials who commit crimes and take bribes.” In the Plains of the Dead, though a literary invention of the author, corruption is rampant and bribing is a norm rather than an exception. Many stayed in the Plains more than necessary, building mansions and bribing corrupt officials using the funeral offerings burned by their loved ones. It’s a sort of a mirror of real society with twisted filters. Similarly, in the Plains, the wealthy thrives (through the offerings burned in their names) while those who don’t have anyone to remember them shrink further because of “poverty”. It’s an interesting concept, but still an ugly reflection of how corruption is inherent wherever people go – even in the afterlife.
This was such an enriching and enjoyable read. Besides the fact that the story is interesting as it is, being a historical fiction, it is peppered with a lot of cultural nuances that proved educational to me as a reader. I was able to glimpse and learn so much about the history of Chinese immigrants around SEA. The lore was rich and fully embodied in the story. I am not much a fan of paranormal books but for some reason, I enjoyed this immensely. And I know I am biased here… but I feel like Asian paranormal shenanigans are much more interesting than the tired generic, western ones (peace!). I really enjoyed the journey through the Plains of the Dead portion of this book as it gave a glimpse of that almost creepy half-life that the dead are leading. There are subtle touches that I really appreciate, which gave a sense of layer to the world: such as whenever you mention or hint at the idea of death to the “dead”, the world contracts “as if it was wrinkled” – suggesting how fragile the illusion of grandeur is in the Plains.
Though it felt a bit drawn out at times, I didn’t mind that much because the story kept me really engaged. I was left guessing even in the last 10 pages of the book. The ending was definitely surprising but it was perfect. It was such a satisfying conclusion to a really interesting journey. Overall, it was a a really great read that I was glad I discovered by chance.
Our climate was hot and damp, an adverse environment for libraries.THIS. >.<
It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.
The medicine tasted like ashes. Like bitter herbs and burned dreams.
It seemed utterly unfair that the spirit should suffer the torments of flesh without having any. But perhaps that was the whole point of the afterlife.
If I had known how easy it is to lose your life, I would have treasured mine better.
‘After my experience with the child by the river, I never wanted to have any more to do with them.’
‘Because it was frightening?’
‘No, because it was too sad.’