“This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence.”
The Pan family of Malacca was once a great house, but its fortunes have declined, its mistress dead of smallpox, and its master permanently scarred by the disease and lost to his opium addiction. Eighteen year old Li Lan is the daughter of the house, but she has few marriage prospects now that her family’s fortune is mostly lost and her father has retreated from the world. But the Pans are still respectable, so the wealthy Lim family approaches them with an offer for Li Lan to marry their deceased son, becoming a ghost bride, and a member of the Lim household. Li Lan refuses, but soon Lim Tian Ching is haunting her dreams, trying to persuade her to become his spirit wife. Though she has no desire to join the Lim family as a ghost bride, she is drawn to the ghost’s cousin, Tian Bai, who is now the Lim family’s heir. However, the more time she spends in the Lim mansion, the more dark secrets she uncovers, and soon she is forced to ask questions about her own family as well. Drawn into the spirit world in an effort to rid herself of Lim Tiang Ching, Li Lan travels to the Plains of the Dead where she hopes to find a way to sever their connection.
1893 Malaya is a curious mixture of Chinese, Muslim, and British influence, with some hold overs from its time a Dutch colony. It is a place where, “in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.” Although Li Lan’s father is a Confucian scholar who eschews superstition, events begin to force Li Lan to admit that Chinese spirit world appears to be very real. However, it requires a lot of information and explanation in order to bring a Western audience up to speed with the relevant folklore, and while the information is interesting, it is rarely integrated into the story in a way that feels natural, leading to one information dump after another. The foreshadowing is equally heavy-handed, causing the story to feel predictable even when Choo makes unusual choices.
Li Lan herself isn’t a very compelling protagonist or narrator. After her sheltered upbringing, she bumbles into one mishap after another, largely as a result of being willing to believe everything she hears. She rarely seems to have a plan, and when she does, it is inevitably bad, although she is depicted as smart. She doesn’t show much in the way of personality, except in her interactions with the mysterious Er Lang, who has all too little page time given that he seems to bring out her better qualities. Despite being a first person narrator, Li Lan feels like a cipher, and the plot drags along behind her as she wanders cluelessly around the spirit world. Choo does bring the novel to a rousing finish, when Li Lan returns to her body, only to discover that it has been possessed by a vengeful spirit in her absence, but this is a relatively small part of a novel that otherwise feels over-long and somewhat directionless.
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