American adolescent Kate and her sister Frankie live with their mother in Hong Kong. It is the summer of 1967; their father is mostly away, photographing scenes from the Vietnam War for Time magazine. Through their father's stories and photographs, and also through newspaper articles, the Vietnam War is constantly and immediately present to Kate and Frankie, forming both a backdrop to their lives in Hong Kong and a rival for their father's attention.
The atmosphere is sultry. Twelve-year-old Kate and older sister Frankie swim in the ocean and play on the beach. One day while swimming, a dead Chinese woman floats up out of the water. That shocking sight changes the girls, marking the end of their innocence.
Hong Kong is full of unrest, with Red Guards planting bombs to encourage the British to leave. There is anarchy in Canton, resulting in corpses in the streets and washing up onto the beaches. With Kate's father gone six weeks at a time, her mother Marianne yearns to protect her daughters, all the while feeling vulnerable. However, Marianne's protective nature is hindered by her profound naiveté and a tendency toward denial.
The two girls differ. Frankie is voluptuous, dark and strong; Kate is small, slight, asthmatic and blonde. Their personalities are also dissimilar. Frankie is a daredevil, verging on being out of control; Kate is quiet and takes the time to notice the details of her life.
One day the girls are in the marketplace with Ah Bing, their nanny/housekeeper. Frankie persuades Kate to slip away to watch the Red Guards' demonstration. When the police arrive, the girls try to return to Ah Bing, but two rough men grab them. One holds Frankie; the other orders Kate to take a heavy bag, supposedly containing lychee fruit, to the police. Kate, terrified senseless for her sister, drifts toward the police, feeling like gwaimui (white ghost girl) while conscious of the fact that she's being used as a pawn. Hostilities escalate between the police and the Red Guards as she continues on, aware that the bag is too heavy for fruit. What happens next is devastating.
Soon the house is awash with guilt, fear, shame, denial and wariness. What happened in the village that day transforms both girls, who react in different ways. Frankie spirals into a wild self-destruction as Kate watches, feeling helpless and angry. Kate hopes someone will notice and attend to their despair. But no matter what they say or do, Kate and Frankie feel invisible, like white ghosts. Their mother is afraid to truly see them; their father can only see Vietnam even when he's physically with them.
The suspense builds slowly in this family tragedy, beginning with the first page, as Kate and Frankie hurtle inevitably toward disaster. The reader's every sense is engaged, thanks to a poetic and lushly detailed description of the exotic setting. Reading WHITE GHOST GIRLS feels like drifting, fear-filled, through a foreign land within a sultry dream while being pierced through with Kate's emotions: love, jealousy, passion, loss and longing. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 5, 2006