This story begins with a tried-and-true trope that spans place and time: A beautiful, motherless young lady of marrying age lives with her father, lacks an affinity for the (traditionally) feminine arts and finds herself subjected to an undesirable arranged marriage.
But in this story, the husband-to-be is already dead.
Set in 1893 Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), "The Ghost Bride" by Yangsze Choo is a novel straddling genres, cultures and life and death. Essentially, this coming-of-age tale is a ghost story. It is a saga where the past and the present intersect, where the old comes into conflict with the new, and where protagonist Li Lan, the educated daughter who resists the day's social mores, must come to terms with her role in a world where she, as a woman of Chinese heritage in a British colony, has little control over her romantic prospects and ultimate fate.
As the only daughter of a once-great merchant family brought to ruin through disease and other misfortune, 18-year-old Li Lan is privy to the pressures of maintaining an appearance of wealth while also understanding dearth. Her widower father, who barely functions under a constant haze of opium, is worried for his daughter's future because Li Lan is not yet married. However, when he proposes that Li Lan marry into the rich Lim family, it is an unconventional marriage that matches the breadth of this unconventional novel, and this is where the guise of what could be considered historical fiction bleeds to horror.
The Lims want Li Lan to become the "ghost bride" of their recently deceased son, Lim Tian Ching. According to the author's notes at the novel's end, in Chinese culture ghost marriages originated from "ancestor worship" in which "matches were sometimes made between two deceased persons, with the families on both sides recognizing the marriage as a tie between them."
In a culture where devotion to family, honor and legacy is extremely important, Li Lan's experience is rare, but was not unheard of. According to Choo, "Sometimes an impoverished girl was taken into a household as a widow to perform the ancestral rites for a man who died without a wife or descendants, which was Li Lan's situation." Li Lan would live in the Lim household as a widow, where she would be expected to mourn the husband she never had but would be taken care of through old age.
Beside herself with worry, Li Lan says: "I had few marriage prospects, and would be doomed to the half-life of spinsterhood. Without a husband, I would sink further into genteel poverty, bereft of even the comfort and respect of being a mother."
Here, Li Lan's struggles come to a head. Is she to perform her due filial respect and anchor her foundering family to a rich one? Can she find a way to escape the pressures to marry a dead man without facing the inherent consequences?
Li Lan's world becomes darker when her ghostly fiance begins haunting her dreams, and the nightmares permeate her waking world. As reality becomes fantasy, Choo maintains tight control of Li Lan's internal development even though she abruptly thrusts her main character and her readers into a detailed, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque (and sometimes steamy) romantic spiritual existence drawn from the tenets of Buddhist views on the afterlife.
Choo's intricate ghost world — of her own invention — is not immune to the bureaucracy, social restrictions and corruption of the living, which speaks to her own propensity for creative pragmatism. Li Lan, who takes in this strange realm with a surprised, yet keen consciousness, finds herself "wondering again at this ghost world, which seemed to have so many of the vices and failings of life."
However, plenty of this story is spun from real life. Readers interested in learning more about British Malaya and the social, cultural and gender dynamics of the time are in luck; Choo assumes the reader has little to no knowledge of this history, yet has her protagonist and narrator explicate delicately. For example, the action of a mahjong game is seamlessly peppered with information about traditional dress, foods and marriage practices.
Malaya, having been colonized by the British in the late 18th century, is home to peoples from sundry cultures and religious backgrounds. Choo's depiction of the lives of Chinese descendants (and others) living in a British colony is adeptly done as she takes a territory with people living under the tensions of East and West and translates the difficulty of the experience through the considerations of Li Lan, who somberly notes that "in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another's superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts."
Throughout the book, Li Lan's observations highlight a hierarchy formed through wealth, nationality and race; at one point, Li Lan eludes to a nefarious, yet ingrained system of oppression, as she notes matter-of-factly that the British could "make an example" of an aberrant Chinese family.
However, Choo's messages are not heavy-handed. She deals with the struggles inherent in living in a colonized, fractured society with nuance by utilizing a character whose initial one-dimensionality is, upon closer examination, overflowing with complexity. Li Lan is caught in a multi-faceted identity crisis as she is a product of a society in which cultures coexist and overlap with much difficulty. Li Lan's primary caretaker's spirituality and superstition is tempered by her father's atheistic pragmatism; she is expected to embody the feminine and aspire to be a wife, while at the same time, her father teaches her to read and neglects to plan for her matrimony adequately. She is of Chinese descent but lives in a place where the British maintain control and many of those around her adopt the styles and habits of Western culture.
As Choo's book has come to be in the Bay Area, which is known in part for its cultural and technological mutability, it is only fitting that Palo Altan Choo, a self-described fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, represents the ideas of being tied to more than one world at once. Because Li Lan does not have her foot firmly in one world or another, she exists in a limbo that is likely familiar to many modern-day readers.
With this area an amalgam of cultures, it's easy to imagine that many people who have come here internationally or even domestically find themselves in the midst of a great cultural and technological divide, the "melting pot" being one of the greatest fictions of all.
And, like Li Lan, local readers may understand the poignancy of inhabiting a sometimes uncomfortable space in which parts of themselves exist in different domains at the same time. For many, Li Lan's ghost world may be more reality than fantasy.