Saturday, 5 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 70: "The Ghost Bride" by Yangsze Choo

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

The former Chinese colony of Malaya (current day Malaysia) is now under British rule, but the Chinese population there still try their best to stick to their ancient customs. Li Lan's family was once wealthy, but after her mother died from chickenpox, her father tried to cover his grief by taking opium and now they are nearly bankrupt, with very few promising marriage prospects for Li Lan. One day, however, her father claims that the wealthy and influential Lim family have offered her a ghost marriage. The son and heir of the family died last year, and they want Li Lan to marry him in a proxy ceremony. Her future would be secured, and she would always have a comfortable home - but Li Lan is appalled by the suggestion.

The Lim family want to persuade Li Lan and invite her to their opulent mansion. Here she meets the new heir, Tian Bai, cousin of her deceased intended bridegroom. They seem drawn to one another, and later Li Lan discovers from her father that before the son of the Lim family died, there was an arrangement where she was intended for Tian Bai. Now that he's the heir and her family are in debt and out of favour, the match seems impossible.

Li Lan comes to realise that the reason the Lim family are so eager for her to be a ghost bride is that her dead bridegroom is haunting the household, and is determined to win her, reluctant or not. He starts haunting her dreams, trying to curry her favour, and Li Lan becomes increasingly more desperate to get rid of him. Seeking the aid of an wizened old lady who claims to be a medium (against the dire warnings of her nurse), Li Lan is given drugs and incantations that are supposed to keep her ghostly suitor out. Unfortunately, she finds herself in a coma-like state, separated from her body. Li Lan finds that she has to visit the underworld to try to figure out why her suitor is so obsessed with her, so she can figure out a way to get rid of him once and for all. Being away from her body for too long holds its own dangers, though, there are vengeful, restless spirits that could take possession of it, and if her spirit is gone for too long, she'll waste away and die.

This was the Vaginal Fantasy book club pick for June (and yes, I'm only NOW getting around to writing about it - I'm well behind on my reviews), and since I'd bought it in an e-book sale ages ago, I figured it was as good a time as any to read the book. While all the VF ladies really liked the book, I must admit, I was rather more underwhelmed by the whole thing. Learning more about a part of the world I knew little to nothing about (colonial Malaya) and the customs and beliefs around death, funerals and the afterlife in this culture was fascinating. That part worked really well. The actual story of the book, though, never managed to really engage me.

First of all, Li Lan seemed rather useless and while she actually does go out and do quite a lot over the course of the book, she still managed to come across as rather passive and uninspiring. Brought up in a culture where upper class women were pretty much supposed to be mainly ornamental won't have helped with this, of course. Nevertheless, I had trouble warming to her as a protagonist. I wanted her to grow more of a backbone and show more spirit.

I also thought the structure of the book left something to be desired. It's got a very slow start and as I have already mentioned, struggled to make me really interested in the story of Li Lan. She's facing a pretty creepy scenario, I wanted to feel for her, but I kept on with the book partially in the hopes that just around the corner, something was going to hook me in. The middle part of the book takes place in the afterlife, which was also potentially cool, but here the story got a bit confusing, and I never really understood the motivations behind Li Lan's vengeful dead suitor or the corrupt afterlife officials who seem to be exploiting him somehow. During the last third of the book, Li Lan has to fight to get her body back, after it's possessed. There is also a new and rather unexpected love interest introduced, a bit late in the story, in my opinion. I found it especially vexing because he was one of the most fascinating characters in the book, and we didn't get to spend enough time with him. I also would have liked for there to be more interaction between him and Li Lan, she seems to fall for him awfully and conveniently quickly.

 It's clear from the reactions of the four really rather different VF hosts and much of the VF Goodreads forum that most people liked this book a lot more than I did. It should absolutely be applauded for doing something different and teaching the reader about a different time and culture. I don't regret buying or reading the book, but I doubt I'll ever be re-reading it, and if it wasn't a digital copy, this would end up in my "give away to a charity shop" pile.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the cover for this is really beautiful, and if I recall correctly, that along with the description (as well as it being on sale) was what made me buy the book in the first place. The flowers in the foreground, the sparkles, the partially out of sight woman, the foreground of the picture being out of focus. I'm sorry I didn't like the book as much as I do the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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