Li Lan, a 17-year-old Chinese girl, lives in 1890 Malaysia, where her family has fallen upon hard times. Her father, once a respectable merchant, is penniless thanks to an addiction to opium, and her mother died long ago from smallpox. Thanks to her family's lower status, her chances of attaining a good marriage are nil. Then she receives a proposal from the Lims, one of the local wealthy families. They would like her to marry their son, Lim Tian Ching. The only catch? Lim Tian is dead, having passed away nine months earlier. Although the marriage of a live person to a dead one is not very common, it is also not unheard of. Usually, the "ghost bride" arrangement is made to pacify an unhappy spirit.
Li is repulsed by the idea, but is curious. How did young Lim Tian die? Why in the world has his family asked for her hand in marriage to him, since she didn't even know him before he died? But her father, holed up in his study smoking opium, is less than forthcoming. When Madam Lim invites her to play mahjong, she can't resist.
"Yangsze Choo’s THE GHOST BRIDE is unlike any book I've ever experienced, with its meld of historical fiction coupled with a fascinating culture, murder mystery, the wandering of spirits of the dead and not-so-dead, romance, and adventures in the afterworld..."
The Lim mansion is very imposing, displaying the family’s wealth. In the courtyard, immense pots overflow with brilliant bougainvillea blossoms. In the foyer, Li notices dozens of clocks in every style ticking away. Madam Lim warmly welcomes her guest, surprising Li with the news that she and Li's mother were distantly related. Li watches the game and indulges in delicious treats, all the while aware that Madam Lim is assessing her. As Li sits there, she remembers what Amah, her housemaid, told her: the only heir to the Lim fortune is a nephew, who some say was cheated out of inheriting the entire estate by his uncle.
At last, Li excuses herself to find a washroom. She finds herself wandering in the vast mansion, finally coming across a young man dressed in shabby clothes who is repairing a pocket watch. They strike up an intriguing conversation until Li breaks it off, realizing she should return to her hostess.
That night, Li is exhausted. Before she dozes off, though, she recalls the young clock repairman she met. She can't help fantasizing that she might marry someone who not only looks like him, but also speaks seriously and intelligently with her as he did. When she does fall asleep, she dreams that she is in the Lim home where she meets a short, plump repugnant young man who introduces himself as Lim Tian Ching, announcing he is there to court her. Li knows immediately that this is no ordinary dream; she wakes gasping and perspiring while her heart gallops.
Li's life becomes nightmarish. During the day, she thinks of how she could save herself and her father from abject poverty by becoming Lim Tian's ghost bride. At night, her spirit suitor stalks her. Meanwhile, she learns the identity of the man she met in the Lim home. She not only yearns for him, but learns he is the accused murderer of Lim Tian Ching. How can she discover the truth? Li is in such a state that she visits a medium, who gives her medicine to help her sleep peacefully. Desperate to get some rest, she overdoses and is plunged into a coma --- or, at least, her body lies in a coma, while her spirit is free to travel through the world of the afterlife, seeking answers to her life's dilemmas.
Readers, are you looking for something different? You'll find it here. Yangsze Choo’s THE GHOST BRIDE is unlike any book I've ever experienced, with its meld of historical fiction coupled with a fascinating culture, murder mystery, the wandering of spirits of the dead and not-so-dead, romance, and adventures in the afterworld --- and should appeal to fans of all those types of stories. While I found myself a bit lost at times, it was almost impossible to mind since Li led me to one revelatory experience after another, even as the unpredictable plot twisted and turned. It all adds up to very enjoyable reading.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on August 9, 2013