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, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. 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 Lim’s 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.
I first read about this book here and thought it fit right into my Asia string. It sounded right up my alley. I enjoy historical novels that focus on Asian folklore and tradition. Wild Swans and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress are two books that I very much enjoyed reading. This book promised to be just as good, and the cover is beautiful. I snatched it off the library shelf as soon as I saw it there.
Then I started reading, and I couldn’t get into the story, even though I really wanted to. The book has several strong points: The language is beautiful, and Choo does a wonderful job describing Malaya and setting up her story. I got hungry whenever she started to talk about food. But unfortunately, the rest of the story didn’t flow as well. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to like certain characters or not. That in itself is not a bad thing, but in this case, I think it was unintentional. I felt like a lot of times I was told what to feel, rather than feel it myself. And sometimes, the pictures that were drawn were confusing.
Here’s an example. At one point, Li Lan has to spend the night outside:
“I huddled against [the enormous tree] like a timid pelandok, or mouse deer. We have many local stories of the mouse deer, so tiny that a man could pick one up and stuff it into a bag with ease. It is no bigger than a cat with delicate, wig-like legs. They are reputedly among the easiest game to hunt, for all you have to do is drum upon some dry leaves with a pair of sticks. Eventually, a male pelandok will appear, thinking it is some rival, and will respond by rapidly drumming its own legs. The hunter then shoots the deer with a blow dart and carries it home for supper. I always felt it was a most unfair way to trap an animal and not at all in keeping with the mouse deer’s fabled reputation for cunning.*
*In Malay tales, Sang Kanchil, the mouse deer, is a brash and clever trickster.”
I have a small problem with using a footnote here. This is Li Lan’s narration; why is she using a footnote? It struck me as odd. Plus, this entire paragraph leaves me with two very different ideas of what a pelandok is. Is it timid? Or is it brash and clever? Would something that is cunning be timid at the same time? And why add all this information here? I would have been happier if Li Lan had stopped after the first sentence. At this point in the book, all the extraneous information about the pelandok does not add anything; instead, it is distracting. I appreciate the fact that all the terms and names that are unfamiliar to me are explained, but at times it pulled me out of the story.
To be fair, the last 100 pages read well, and at times the style reminded me of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Overall, this book is worth checking out, though I would not necessarily move it to the top of my TBR list.