Tan debuts with a cinematically epic ghost story set largely on a Malaysian island that bears a striking resemblance to her native Singapore.
In 2010, fearing that she is being erased from history, an aged woman living in Tokyo recounts her life to a visiting professor: Born in 1922 Shanghai, Ling and her twin brother, Li, are inseparable until 7-year-old Ling realizes that she can see ghosts while he can’t. From then on, ghosts surround her, some charming, some sorrowful, some horrific. During the Depression, Ling’s father loses his teaching job. At the insistence of Ling’s agoraphobic mother, he travels to the island in search of work, taking only the twins with him. They live in poverty, but Ling enjoys the cosmopolitan city until her father takes a job managing a rubber plantation when she is 12. He proves inept, so for three years Li and Ling run the operation, engaging in a little incest along the way, until the spirits of the dead rise up in an act of violence. As Japanese power builds ominously, Ling takes a job with the wealthy Wee family. Before long, she is engaged to sweet, dopey Daniel Wee and has changed her name to Cassandra. Recognizing her as a kindred spirit, the Wees’ chauffeur, Issa, encourages her to corral her power over the spirit world, but she bungles her attempt. The Japanese invade; the Wees are destroyed; and she becomes a Japanese officer’s sex toy until the British return victorious. Cassandra reunites with Issa and with Daniel’s former schoolmate, Kenneth. Helping them in their struggle for postwar independence, Cassandra enlists a host of child ghosts who wreak uncontrollable havoc. As Kenneth rises in the political world, he becomes Cassandra’s secret lover, but their affair is doomed: He embodies the relentless pursuit of ghost-free prosperity, while she can’t shake the haunted tension between the present and the past.
Cassandra is compelling, but despite graphic, sometimes gratuitous eroticism and violence, the ambitious novel eventually becomes a slog through too many ghosts.