For your bookshelf: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

All too often, someone examines the Young Adult shelves and comes up with damning statistics: few authors of colour, few characters of colour, and if a book happens to be about a non-white person, chances are that character won’t be on the cover.

So I was pretty excited when I wandered through a bookstore a few weeks ago and found The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, a novel about a young Chinese-Malaysian woman who is asked to become marry the recently deceased son of a wealthy family.  It broke all the restrictions I listed above, and further research (you know, I googled) revealed that it was also the subject of a fair amount of publisher and industry hype.  As the author’s website lists:

  •’s Book of the Week
  • An August 2013 Indie Next List pick
  • Barnes & Noble Fall ‘13 Discover Great New Writers selection,
  • Glamour Magazine 2013 Beach Read
  • Good Housekeeping Magazine Book Pick
  • The Bookseller Editor’s Pick
  • Library Journal Barbara’s Pick

All this is really cool, and I hope it’s the beginning of a trend of inclusivity in the publishing industry.  Even if the cover is one of those dreadful headless girl covers so beloved of publishers, and is also kind of badly composed.

But, of course, we ask, does the novel live up to the hype?

The cover of The Ghost Bride: an Asian woman with high cheekbones and an enigmatic smile is lying ... on her side?  And there's, like, blurry flowers around her? This is not actually a good cover.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

In my opinion, yes.  It has too many subplots, with the result that some go undeveloped, but it was entertaining, difficult to put down, and left me seeking out more information about Malaysia, Chinese-Malaysian culture in the 19th century, Chinese beliefs and practices about the afterlife, and more.  If I finish a book and find myself surrounded by Wikipedia tabs, that’s a good sign.

Of course, as a Nice White Lady, I’m not in a position to judge Choo’s depiction of Malaysia’s Chinese population, or Malaysia in general.  (Let’s all take a moment to cast some casual side-eye at the GoodReads reviewer who suggested Choo’s portrayal of Asia was inferior to that of Alison Goodman, white Australian author.)  But I never had the feeling that Choo was writing for a default white audience.  She stops and gives context to various plot-relevant things, but I still had to look up foods and clothing styles to fully appreciate the setting.  I contrast this with Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, where chopsticks became “eating sticks”.

Additionally, the Malacca of the book quickly felt like home.  It didn’t seem exoticised or cliched.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the setting, but it certainly felt like a real, vivid place, familiar to its heroine and very much loved.

Ah, the heroine.  Certain GoodReads reviewers will tell you that she was passive and boring, and those reviewers are WRONG.

I mean, yes, Li Lan is a quiet character who respects and loves her opium-addicted father and the servant who raised her.  For much of the book, she observes rather than acts, and I guess that can be frustrating.  Truthfully, I found the first quarter of the book pleasant, but slow going.  “Just hurry up and marry the dead guy so we can get this show on the road,” I was thinking.

Hah!  Li Lan mocks your puny assumptions about how things should go!  I mean, she won’t actually say anything, but she’ll be judging you.  Silently.

Around the point where my Kobo told me I was at 25%, something happens.  I’m not going to spoil it, because I absolutely didn’t see it coming, but it completely defied my expectations.  And from that point, Li Lan has to take a much more proactive role in the story.  She makes mistakes, stubbornly refuses to do what I keep silently telling her to do, and she is possibly the worst judge of character since Dance Academy gave me Tara Webster.  But she’s wonderful, because here she is, stuck in a situation she does’t understand and cannot control, and by God, she is going to make this work or die trying.

Okay, so things I did not love: the subplots.  There were too many.  First we have the Lim family, their eligible post-mortem bachelor and their many, many other dysfunctions.  Like the bit where the eligible bachelor was murdered.

Then we have the corrupt bureaucracy controlling the afterlife.  Then we have Li Lan’s dead mother.  Then we have — actually, his whole name is a spoiler, it turns out.  Not for me, because I had to Google him, but if I name him, Stephanie will probably have a good idea of what he’s all about.  Anyway, there’s a guy, and he has a an agenda, and Li Lan spends a lot of time yelling at him.  SORRY, GOODREADS, SHE’S NO ACTUALLY PASSIVE AT ALL.  GO STAND IN THE CORNER.

Now, all these subplots were really interesting, but there were SO MANY that they felt a bit muddled, and certain resolutions happen off-stage.  I don’t actually know which one I’d exclude, though, so maybe the book just needed to be slightly longer.  (It looks like it wasn’t marketed as YA in the US?  Which also explains some of the lukewarm reactions from reviewers.  It could go as either YA or Whatever The Hell New Adult Even Is, but I think it’s a better fit in YA.)

One thing The Ghost Bride didn’t have was, you know, white people.  Much.  There is one white person in the entire book, and he’s … well, spoilers, he’s dead long before the action takes place.  I guess Stephanie will be a better judge of this when she reads it, but I went in expecting a book with more overt discussion of colonialism, and found hardly any at all.  At one point Li Lan is offered the opportunity to visit England, but her actual dreams of travel involve Japan and China.

I’ve been trying to decide whether this avoidance of the issue was … well, you know, avoidance, or a subtle middle finger being raised in the general direction of imperialism: “You may occupy our land, impose your values on ours, but you’re not part of our stories.”  Mostly I think it’s just not relevant to Li Lan’s experiences.

(One bit where colonialism intruded, although I only learned this later, on my Wikipedia binge, is the use of the term “hell money” for the fake money burned for the dead.  As Wikipedia tells it, and feel free to correct me if it’s wrong, it picked up that name after Christian missionaries told Chinese people they were going to hell for their pagan beliefs (well done, people, really nice attitude there), and the Chinese were like, “Okay, so ‘hell’ is clearly the English word for heaven.  Cool!”)

(So I don’t know if “hell money” is the appropriate word for the setting and character, but it’s evocative and fits the mythology of the setting.  But I’m not wholly comfortable with its use, and will just sit tight until Stephanie tells me how to feel.)

The Ghost Bride is AU$7.39 on Kobobooks, and is probably some similar sort of amount on Kindle, or in paperback, and stuff.  It’s $19.99 at Readings in Melbourne, which is why I bought the ebook.  Also, arthritis and stuff, and my hands are delicate flowers.  I think more people should read it so we can make flappy hands at each other about [SPOILERY THING THAT HAPPENS AT THE END].  In the meantime, I’m going to go stalk Yangsze Choo’s website and wait impatiently for her next book.

11 thoughts on “For your bookshelf: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

  1. So I saw this for sale when I was in Singapore and sacrificed it in favour of the many other books I bought but it definitely wasn’t marketed as YA in Kinokuniya there, so INTERESTING. Also I was already interested in reading it but now spoilers I want to knoooowwww.

    I’m also looking forward to finding out what its assumed knowledge is.

    On the hell money front, I would believe that theory. Certainly I never call it ‘hell’ money in Mando/Canto, though I’ve occasionally called it that in English (usually by accident). Certainly ‘hell money’ would have no use in hell, it’s used for in heavens and in judging (because bribes, yo). Please hold while I read the book to find its context. I will attempt to read it this week!

    One of the things I find both interesting and frustrating about hearing not-Chinese people’s opinions on Chinese stories is that it often fails to take into account what makes a good Chinese story, or a good character in a Chinese story. The definition of passive and active is different, as is the natural progression of a story (there doesn’t have to be conflict and resolution, for example, though there often is). Different definitions of femininity, action, good and bad, etc, are all important to take into account when I’m not throttling someone for being wrong on the internet. Similar to my feels on Bitter Suites last week, which I reckon non-SEA buddhists and daoists will find much less scary than I did. CONTEXT. It matters.

    1. “Certainly ‘hell money’ would have no use in hell, it’s used for in heavens and in judging (because bribes, yo)”

      Yes, and I feel like “hell” was used interchangeably with other words for the afterlife here, no judgement intended. Which I feel is kind of subtextually problematic, but it was also really good for increasing the tension. IDEK, that’s why I’m waiting for you.

      “One of the things I find both interesting and frustrating about hearing not-Chinese people’s opinions on Chinese stories is that it often fails to take into account what makes a good Chinese story, or a good character in a Chinese story.”

      Yes, I’ve heard that before (it especially comes up in Avatar fandom). And while I personally didn’t feel that Li Lan was a dull or passive character, I have EXTRA SPECIAL side eye for the “this white author did it so much better” business.

  2. …apparently we have a limit on how deep threads go?

    ANYWAY, no, I did not know how you feel about Goodman’s world, but Eon and Eona have been on my to-read pile since Continuum 8, so you should tell me!

    “Why do you think the interchangability of hell / afterlife is subtextually problematic?”

    Because, in Christian theology, hell implies that a moral judgement has taken place, and the subject has been found wanting.

    HOWEVER, to people who don’t have that background, I don’t know if it would have that connotation. So I’m hesitant to say that this is bad and people should feel bad, when it’s as much a product of my own background and cultural biases. *flappy hands* IT’S JUST COMPLICATED.

  3. I have very strong feelings about pan-Asian narratives, particularly pan-Asian narratives written by non-Asian authors who don’t specialise in Asian stuff, is the short form. I remember reading this interview (spoilers) and getting grumpy because she had a Japanese aunty and so she [backstory and then] wanted to create a pan-Asian world because bleeaaargh. I am aware that many people would disagree.

    Also in trying to find that interview again I found a review that was “I’ll admit, again, that I struggled at first with the very Asian influences in this book. Not for any other reason than I simply wasn’t willing to work for it. ” AND WOW AM I MAD AT THIS RANDOM ANGMO WHO IS WRONG ON THE INTERNETS.

    *Because, in Christian theology, hell implies that a moral judgement has taken place, and the subject has been found wanting.*

    HMMMMM. I mean, I agree, obviously. Just an interesting point about the connotations. One on which I am going to pause on expounding on until I’ve read the book. CONTEXT. HOLDING ME BACK AGAIN.

  4. I’ve been interested in reading this book since it was mentioned in a Goodreads Newsletter a few weeks ago so I’m very glad to hear that it’s good! I think I’ll grab a copy to read while I’m in hospital in a couple of weeks & then I’ll tweet flappily at you. I also wanted to say that it’s nice to see other people use the number of Wiki pages it makes you open as a measure of a book’s excellence!

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