Pan Li Lan, our heroine, receives an unusual and insulting proposal, to wed Tian Ching, the dead son of the wealthy Lim family, in a ghost marriage. Li Lan fiercely opposes this match, but is nonetheless drawn to the Lim family when she falls for its living heir, Tian Bai, and finds herself being aggressively haunted by his cousin Tian Ching.
Li Lan must discover the truths behind Tian Ching’s death and that of her own mother, and thwart a vast cosmic conspiracy, in order to follow her own desires and marry for love.
One of the great strengths of The Ghost Bride is its setting in Malacca, a diverse trade hub in the British colony of Malaya. Malacca’s Chinese community, which exists in an uneasy thrall to both mainland China and the British, blends its own traditions with Malay customs, and the US-based Choo’s love for this ancestral land shines through.
I would have liked more about the cultural contacts between the Chinese, Malay, Sikh, Tamil, Arab, Dutch, and British communities. The only non-Chinese character Li Lan meets is Dutch, described in a beautiful bit of cultural othering: “The pale light illumined a nose like a parrot’s beak and deep eye sockets. A foreigner, I thought. I had never been so close to one before.”
But Li Lan’s gender and class (like many a Jane Austen heroine, she is genteel but impoverished) tightly restrict her to the Chinese community. In fact, the supernatural elements that dominate the story serve in large part to liberate her from the strictures on a woman of her background in the 1890s.
Victimized by a lecherous ghost and her own hasty actions, Li Lan spends much of the book in a spirit world, in which Choo uses a neat bit of world-building to reconcile contradictory Chinese traditions.
There, Li Lan dodges demons, rides a supernatural horse, learns the secrets of her family history, and (in a nod to the Chinese classics) investigates a conspiracy involving the corruption of one of the Nine Judges of Hell. This last brings her into contact with Er Lang, a mysterious government functionary whose true nature will be apparent to anyone familiar with Chinese folklore.
Li Lan has long thirsted for a life of travel and adventure; her fascination with the Ming explorers of Africa partly draw her to the well-traveled Tian Bai. She knows that the spirit world, despite its dangers, allows her a freedom she cannot have in the flesh.
In fact, the most intriguing part of the book takes place at the end, after several dramatic plot twists have been resolved. Li Lan has to weigh how her adventures have changed her, and make a real-world choice about her future happiness.
Choo more than once subverted my expectations with the romance plot, which is ultimately the most important, as it forms an integral part of Li Lan’s coming of age. Li Lan, though often rescued or rendered powerless, is not at heart a passive character. There were times when I wish she showed a bit more gumption, but I enjoyed her adventures and growth toward maturity.
Choo’s frictionless prose sounds too modern for her narrator, but goes down smoothly and suits her fast-paced plot. A first novelist, she tends to signpost important information too baldly (“Only much later would I understand the significance of his words”), but her story never bogs down, and most (though not all) of her villains receive nuanced characterization.
The afterword in which she shares her research is fascinating. I look forward to her next book.