The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

I originally intended to read The Ghost Bride for this year’s RIP challenge but ran out of time. I then thought it might be suitable for Chris and Lizzie’s Witch Week earlier this month (it seemed to fit their theme of Polychromancy – fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds) but I didn’t finish it in time for that either. Never mind – I’ve read it now and enjoyed it, although it wasn’t really what I’d expected. Having previously read Yangsze Choo’s other novel, The Night Tiger, a story steeped in Chinese and Malaysian folklore but with only a small amount of magical realism, I had thought this book would be similar. However, I discovered that this one has a much stronger fantasy element.

The Ghost Bride is narrated by seventeen-year-old Li Lan, a young Chinese woman who lives with her opium-addicted father and her beloved amah (nursemaid) in 1890s Malacca, a city in what was then known as Malaya. The time has come for Li Lan to marry, but her father has fallen into financial difficulties and her options are limited. When she receives an offer from the wealthy Lim family to become the wife of their son, Lim Tian Ching, this should have been a wonderful opportunity for Li Lan, but instead she is horrified – because Lim Tian Ching is dead. This arrangement would provide financial security and comfort for Li Lan, but it would mean living the rest of her life as a widow.

Li Lan vows to resist the attempts of the Lim family to turn her into a ‘ghost bride’, but Lim Tian Ching has other ideas and begins to visit her in her dreams every night, claiming that he was murdered by his cousin, Tian Bai. Li Lan wants nothing to do with the whole situation, but when her soul becomes separated from her body during an illness, she finds herself thrust into the afterlife. In this world populated with ghosts and spirits, she must try to discover the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s death if she wants to have any chance of returning to her body and living in peace.

As you can probably tell, this is a book with a very strange plot – I’ve never read anything quite like it! It’s definitely not my usual sort of read and as I’ve said, I was expecting something more like The Night Tiger – historical fiction with just a little bit of fantasy. Instead, I found I was reading a book set almost entirely in the Chinese underworld, complete with dragons and ‘ox-headed demons’. It was interesting, though, and Yangsze Choo’s worldbuilding is excellent. I was fascinated by the way she incorporates the Chinese custom of burning ‘funeral money’ as offerings for the dead into the plot, with the paper money burnt in the real world corresponding to the appearance of paper houses, paper animals and even puppet-like paper servants in the afterlife.

Although a lot of time is spent on describing the bureaucracy of the world in which Li Lan finds herself, the court cases that take place in the Plains of the Dead and the ways in which the souls of the recently deceased are judged, the focus is always on Li Lan’s personal story and the people she meets in the underworld who can help her with her task. There’s even a touch of romance, although Li Lan’s love interest is certainly not Lim Tian Ching, whom she despises from the beginning. I won’t tell you who he is, but he ended up being my favourite character.

I felt that this book was longer than it really needed to be and some of Li Lan’s adventures in the Plains of the Dead were too drawn out, but overall I found The Ghost Bride an unusual and intriguing novel which has left me wanting to know more about the Chinese afterlife!

15 thoughts on “The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

  1. margaret21 says:

    I’m going to be very small-minded and say that seeing the word ‘fantasy’ put me off immediately. I’m going to have to get over myself at some point, but this may not be the book to test my sticking power on.

  2. Laura says:

    I’m hesitating over this one. I struggled with The Night Tiger so it’s good to know this one is quite different – and having just read Zen Cho’s amazing short story set in the Chinese afterlife, ‘The Terra-cotta Bride’, that setting sounds fab!

    • Helen says:

      I preferred The Night Tiger but this book does have a very different feel so maybe you would get on better with this one. The Chinese afterlife is a fascinating setting!

  3. FictionFan says:

    Hmm, I acquired this after loving The Night Tiger but it’s still lingering on my TBR. It sounds as if it will probably be too “fantasy” for me, but it does sound interesting and she can certainly write! I’m encouraged that you enjoyed it even though it’s not really your genre of choice either…

    • Helen says:

      It goes much further in the fantasy direction than The Night Tiger. I found it quite entertaining but I’m not sure whether it will be your sort of book or not. I’ll be interested to hear what you think if and when you do read it!

  4. Calmgrove says:

    I’m glad you managed to finish this, Helen, even if not in time for Witch Week! It sounds fascinating, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one or two other reviews of this which are generally favourable. I have no problem with fantasy, especially when it’s well done, so will look out for this.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was fascinating – the Chinese afterlife is such an unusual setting and a subject I’d never read about before. I think you would find this book interesting.

      • elmediat says:

        This was made into a 2020 Taiwanese-Malaysian Netflix original series. Like many such series in Asia, it was a one & done narrative. Have yet to watch it.

  5. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    What a very unusual plot! However, I admire the author’s creativity and her editor’s faith in the execution.

    I’m like you – I enjoy some fantasy. I am not sure this is for me but I am glad to experience it vicariously!

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