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One another's superstitions

The Ghost Bride

Title: The Ghost Bride
By: Yangsze Choo

Intelligent, adventurous Li Lan, the only daughter of a scholarly but poor father, receives an unusual proposal of marriage from a wealthy Chinese Malaysian family in Malacca. Her father at first resists the notion of a “ghost marriage” between his daughter and the deceased son of the Lim family, but he is forced by impending poverty to accept an engagement that Li Lan cannot abide. Almost at once, her dreams are infiltrated by the frightening ghost of her would-be husband, and she tries increasingly desperate measures to escape his power. At the same time, a mutual attraction develops between Li Lan and the Lim family’s adopted son, Tian Bai.

Li Lan’s adventures in the ghost worlds are based on Chinese Buddhist, Taoist, and literary traditions of the afterlife. Like the spirit world, Chinese culture requires a native guide: in this case, Yangsze Choo. Her speculative reconciliation of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation with traditional Chinese practices of ancestor veneration almost seemed like an inversion of the Roman Catholic Purgatory...does that make Choo a Malaccan Chinese Virgil to the reader's Dante?

The author builds a marvelous, creative tale of Li Lan’s encounters with paper funeral offerings, demons, and helpful and mean spirits. “We Chinese did not like to give or receive certain gifts for superstitious reasons: knives, because they could sever a relationship; handkerchiefs, for they portended weeping; and clocks, as they were thought to measure out the days of your life.”

In a way, the Chinese populations of Malaysia and California share a common experience that the Chinese in China do not. The Malaysians and Californians exposed to overseas Chinese culture (whether directly, or through books such as this one) also have a unique experience. “It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another's superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts,” says the narrator. But there's a simple remedy or "comfort" to the superstitious problem that arises if someone gives you a knife, watch or handkerchief as a gift: you give a token amount of money in return, thereby turning the inauspicious gift into a utilitarian purchase.

Ghost world by night, real world by day: is there any comfort to be found? Which world will Li Lan choose?

NB: This book was reviewed independently by 2 staff members who agreed to have their work combined here. Their individual reviews appear under the bylines Xenon (here in bold type) and April.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction

Posted on May 18, 2014 at 5:27 a.m.

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