I’m not sure how it is for other readers when they read books written by their fellow countrymen, but as a Malaysian Chinese, reading a book written by another Malaysian evokes a variety of complex feelings. As a writer, there is a certain amount of envy (goddammit I want to write The Great Malaysian Novel!), and as a Malaysian living overseas it inspires a homesickness so cloying that at times it’s all I can do not to log on to AirAsia and book the next cheap flight home. Homesickness turns us all into bad poets, I find.
It’s so strange, when the majority of literature both contemporary and classic is dominated by British and American writers, to read a book in which one of the main characters has the same surname as mine, or to see Malay words and bits of history and legend that I once internalized as a child sprinkled throughout the text. There are so few Malaysian writers out there who have made it to the mainstream that stumbling upon The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo felt like finding a rare treasure, even before I read it. To make matters doubly serendipitous, I read the book on August 31 — Malaysia’s independence day. Happy birthday to my country — you are one screwed up broad, but I love you anyway.
Having said all that, the thing that’s always bothered me about Malaysian novels is how often they seem to be set in the past. The Japanese Occupation, which occurred during World War II and by all accounts was a horrific time, is a favorite subject (The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists, The Rice Mother), as is the era of the 1950s or 1960s. While I’ve enjoyed reading these books (but I’m sorry, Tash Aw’s work is just awful; if any of you want to read a good Malaysian writer, start with Tan Twan Eng, please) I’ve often wondered why no one has written a novel set in contemporary Malaysia — the Malaysia I grew up in, which was emphatically Malaysia and not ‘Malaya’. Why has no one written about dusty chalky classrooms and streets filled with Protons and Peroduas and luxury high rises and designer cafes and snatch thefts and rising crime rates and dear lord, can we get a fair election in here?
Anyway, I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that there was a certain wariness when I cracked open The Ghost Bride because the premise seemed to be, well, gimmicky. Pan Li Lan is the daughter of a once wealthy family in Malacca in 1893, a port town that was important during the British and Dutch rule in Malaysia. Malacca is still a cultural hotspot in Malaysia, home of the famous Straits Chinese and some of the most delicious food you will ever taste (excuse me while I go drool). So one day, Li Lan’s opium-addict, learned father, a widow who has never gotten over losing his wife, asks her if she would consider becoming the ‘ghost bride’ of the son of one of his friends, a man who incidentally holds all his debts. Ghost marriages are marriages arranged between the dead and the dead or the dead and the living. They are, as Choo interestingly points out in the notes section of the novel, a peculiarity of overseas Chinese and not practiced in mainland China where in any case, most people are not very superstitious.
Li Lan obviously refuses (who wants to be married to a dead man for gods’ sake, not all of us are Bella Swan, you know) and her father drops the matter. But matters escalate from there until Li Lan finds herself embroiled in the Chinese underworld (ghost underworld, not gangster underworld, although the Chinese are good at the gangster underworld too) and meets Er Lang, a mysterious stranger with a beautiful voice and ‘elegant shoes’, who is investigating a rebellion in the underworld that he suspects is being organized by Li Lan’s ghostly suitor.
The plot is intriguing and very well woven, with all the motivations explained splendidly and all the explanations very satisfying. I did get lost once or twice in the labyrinth of family relationships — but this is not an unfamiliar feeling to me, since my father has about ten thousand relatives and exactly how I’m related to them has been a mystery to me for the past 26 years.
The truth is, after Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists, The Ghost Bride is the most satisfying Malaysian novel I’ve read. I love how humorous and sarcastic Choo’s voice is — especially when portraying the relationship between Li Lan and Er Lang. The matter-of-fact tone was a superb contrast to the fanciful subject matter and I think, saved it from becoming cliched and gimmicky. My favorite character was Old Wong, the family cook, a laconic and taciturn Hainanese man who can see ghosts. And obviously, by the end of the book I had fallen in love with Er Lang — I mean, who wouldn’t fall in love with a mysterious stranger who thinks way too much of himself and wears Han clothing which, even in late 1800s Malaya is outdated?
I also liked Li Lan — even though beautiful heroines usually annoy me — since she showed herself to be not just a pretty face but also a ‘harridan’ and a ‘scold’ and ultimately, a woman brave enough to choose the future she wants, despite all its uncertainties.
If there was any unevenness to the narration it was caused by the fact that Choo inserted way too many Malaysian terms and their explanations, some of which were rather obvious she had included not because they were necessary, but to give the book more ‘color’. While I loved seeing them on the page, the subsequent explanations were sometimes awkward and broke up the smoothness of the narration. I think she could have allowed the reader to infer the meanings of the terms from the text itself and then included a glossary at the end. Anyway, it’s a small quibble.
I think that ultimately, what I loved about the book was that it was an extremely satisfying, well-written fantasy type novel that transcends it’s setting. Choo uses 1800s Malacca as a backdrop to great effect, but doesn’t allow the setting to detract from the story. And the story is awesome.