Title: The Ghost Bride
Author: Yangsze Choo
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, traditional ghost marriages are used to placate restless spirits. 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 Lims’ 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.
Unlike other girls, Li Lan really hates sewing and embroidery. She’s really bad at it. She still wins a needle-threading competition but she informs us that she isn’t quite sure how she did it. I did roll my eyes at that bit but kept going because the rest was intriguing. The atmosphere of 19th century Malaysia was vividly described and the question of why the Lim family is so eager for her and only her to be the ghost bride of their son promised a good mystery. Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t really deliver on that promise.
The plot seemed to follow two maxims: maximum convenience and maximum drama. Li Lan is – very conveniently – always in hearing range of people who share vital information so she can eavesdrop and be led to the next place where she can overhear the next vital piece of information that advances the plot (and sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes she just stumbles over one piece of information after the other without having to connect any dots). Now to an extent, this is hard to avoid. She isn’t a noisy old spinster in 1920s England who can poke her nose into everything and ask slightly insolent questions. She’s a young (not very well off) woman in a society where that means she hasn’t much freedom. But I simply couldn’t get through such an amount of plot-convenient coincidences without a lot more eye-rolling…
Meanwhile, on those occasions where Liu Lan actually does talk to people, she just believes everything they say. Even when she knows their people have their own agenda, even if those people make no secret about how much they hate her. It’s inconceivable that they would lie to her. Hence many a dramatic freak-out.
But, the absolute death-blow for me was how utterly flat the romance fell for me. This book is not a capital-R Romance; there are two man Li Lan develops feelings for and at the end, she has to make a decision. But many of her decisions are influenced to at least some degree by her feelings for those men. I am fairly sure that the story of the book had played out very differently if she hadn’t had those feelings. And…I didn’t buy any of those feelings. I could sort of buy the first as a crush that somewhat escalated due to some very unusual circumstances but I genuinely had no idea that she had developed any feelings for the second guy until she actually said it and that’s…just not exactly great writing.