In 1893 Malaya (which later became Malaysia), seventeen-year old Li Lan is stunned when her father asks her if she wants to become a ghost bride to the recently deceased Lim Tian Ching, whom Li Lan scarcely knew. The old Chinese tradition of ghost marriage – arranging a marriage for someone who has died to placate restless spirits – is rarely practiced. It is even more rare to wed a live person to a dead one; this would make Li Lan a widow before her 18th birthday.
The fact that her father is even considering the proposal shows just how desperate things have gotten for Li Lan’s family. Her mother died when she was just four years old, her father has drowned his substantial grief in opium, and they are rapidly running out of money. If Li Lan were wed – even to a dead man – it would give her a new home in her in-laws house and assure she would be taken care of for life. The Lims are a wealthy and respected family. Li Lan goes for a visit to the Lims and sees for herself their beautiful home, but she also discovers that the family has some secrets and that perhaps Lim Tian Ching’s death wasn’t an accident. Besides, Li Lan finds herself attracted to his handsome cousin, Tian Bai.
Then things get a bit strange. Lim Tian Ching begins to visit Li Lan in her dreams, and eventually, Li Lan finds herself drawn into the Chinese afterlife, wandering its peculiar environs that are an eerie parallel to the real world. She is on a mission to find out the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s death, his motives for wanting her to marry him, and maybe, though she can scarcely admit it to herself, have a chance to see her mother again. But the afterlife is a dangerous place for someone who is not yet dead, and Li Lan could end up stuck there if she’s not careful.
So, I think you can see the strangeness of this tale that takes place partly in the real world and partly in the afterlife. Most people in our book group enjoyed the real-life passages and the fascinating backdrop of turn-of-the-century Malaya and Chinese tradition; however, not everyone felt comfortable with the more supernatural forays into the world of the afterlife. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about this novel at first, but the story and characters pulled me in, and I ended up enjoying it. At the end of our discussion, we each rated the book out of 10, and ratings were all over the map – lots of 6’s and 7’s, a few 9’s and 10’s, and even a few 1’s and 3’s. It certainly spurred some spirited discussions!
The Ghost Bride is a wholly unique novel, moving back and forth between the real world and the afterlife, according to ancient Chinese beliefs that are still held today. If you enjoy historical fiction and learning about different cultures, then you may enjoy this novel, especially if you are willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride for the supernatural portions of the book. It’s a coming-of-age adventure tale with two fascinating settings, one historical and one magical.
354 pages, William Morrow