Getting married to a complete stranger can be terrifying … especially if that stranger is already dead! Yangsze Choo tackles the obscure cultural practice of “ghost marriages” in her debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Set in 1890s Malaysia (or Malaya, as it was called at the time), the book is historical fiction with a paranormal twist, drawing on Chinese mythology and notions of the afterlife, as well as the author’s own imagination. The Ghost Bride brings together everything I love—the Victorian era, ghosts, romance, and learning about other cultures—all in one story, and I’m so excited to have come across this new author.
Li Lan’s father was once a successful merchant in the port town of Malacca, but now the family fortune has dwindled and Li Lan’s prospects are bleak. Then the wealthy Lim family reaches out with a proposal that is equally tempting and distasteful—they want Li Lan to enter into a ghost marriage with their recently deceased heir, Lim Tian Ching. Li Lan’s father assures her that he will not agree to the arrangement without her consent, but when the ghost of Lim Tian Ching begins haunting her in dreams Li Lan realizes that it may not be that easy to escape this marriage. Soon, Li Lan is drawn into a web of ghostly scheming, mysterious murders, and spirit world bureaucracy.
I really enjoyed Yangsze Choo’s creative interpretation of the afterlife. She includes notes at the end of the book that explain which aspects were taken from Chinese folklore and which were her own invention. The spirit world of The Ghost Bride blends together multiple different religious traditions and seemingly contradictory beliefs. First you have the ghosts that haunt the world of the living, invisible to all except those with the gift (or curse) of seeing the dead. Ghosts with unfinished business follow their enemies and lovers around, while those who have not been adequately provided for by their descendants wither away into Hungry Ghosts. This invisible plane is also populated by plant spirits, demons, and all sorts of otherworldly beings.
Choo’s invented world also includes a separate realm called the Plains of the Dead. Built as a sort of mirror-world to Malacca, this ghostly town is where the dead reap the benefits of funeral offerings made by their living family. The wealthy live in magnificent mansions with puppet servants, extravagant funeral clothes, and anything else that has been burned for them. This world seems to be governed by some sort of spirit world bureaucracy, complete with corrupted officials that can be bribed for preferential treatment. From there, spirits eventually “move on” and rejoin the cycle of reincarnation, in line with the Buddhist tradition—or at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do. I love reading about different interpretations of the afterworld, and I found Yangsze Choo’s version to be particularly compelling. So many different realms! And different options! Yet it’s an afterlife filled with as many dangers, conspiracies, and injustices as the world of the living—not somewhere I’d personally want to visit.…
If you want to check out The Ghost Bride for yourself, you can find it at your local retailer, or buy it online and support The Gothic Library in the process by clicking on the IndieBound affiliate link below. If you read it, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments!