Ghost marriage, also known as “spirit marriage,” dates back to ancient Chinese traditions where a woman’s marriage is arranged by the family of a deceased man for a number of reasons. According to two scholars with expertise in this area, Marjorie Topley and Janice Stockhard, those reasons include: “the marriage of a couple previously engaged before one member’s death, to integrate an unmarried daughter into a patrilineage, to ensure the family line is continued, or to [ensure] that no younger brother is married before an elder brother.” Whatever the reasons or origins of this custom—apparently these atypical arrangements persist in some places to this day—it’s certainly fertile ground for fiction. Lucky for us, Yangsze Choo’s debut novel, The Ghost Bride, depicts these Chinese traditions in their full, unbridled glory.
A fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, Choo grew up hearing a lot of different, sometimes supernatural stories. Her father collected old books and many of the tomes contained historic information about Malaysia and its rich cultural history, in particular during the tumultuous 1800s. Reading about this history gave Choo a strong grasp of what life was like for people in Malaysia and colonial Malaya. That historical foundation shines through, lending the novel the authenticity of historical fiction in this exquisitely drawn portrait of ancient customs and supernatural worlds.
“When I started writing the book, I’d been doing research on another novel I was working on,” says Choo, who had previously worked as a management consultant and had written only short stories. “I came across an article that said that spiritual marriage amongst the Chinese has declined. It was such an interesting idea and I thought that I would write about it.”
Malacca, the small town where the novel is primarily set, is home to ghosts, rumors, ancient family feuds and superstition. It’s also the home of Li Lan, the novel’s protagonist whose family is bankrupt and whose own prospects for marriage are initially uncertain at best. This changes when she receives a strange invitation, delivered via her old and ailing father, which amounts to a proposal for a ghost marriage from the wealthy and mysterious Lim family. Li Lan confides that her family, once well off, was now “just hanging on to middle-class respectability.” A marriage arranged with Lim Tian Ching, a son and Lim family heir who died a few months earlier, would solve her own family’s dire financial situation easily.
Choo deftly conveys the protagonist’s inner emotional turmoil, mainly by showing rather than telling how Li Lan is feeling. Over the course of the next 350 pages or so, Choo takes a tale that seems straightforward at first and conjures up plot twists and supernatural realms—with vivid descriptions that draw the reader into surprising, unusual spaces. The creepiness of Li Lan’s first encounter with Ching, who hopes to “court” her by haunting her dreams, is captured with colorful language:
Turning, I saw a strange young man. He was grandly dressed in old-fashioned formal robes that came down to his ankles. On his feet, curiously short and broad, he wore black court shoes with pointed toes. His clothing was dyed in lurid hues, but his face was quite undistinguished, being plump with a weak chin and a smattering of acne scars. He gazed at me with a solicitous smile.
One might assume that the author of a novel populated by a range of ghosts, dragons, demons, mediums and other mystical creatures would not scare easily, but that would be incorrect. “I’m a real chicken, but it depends on the medium,” says Choo, adding that she remembers seeing billboards advertising scary flicks outside the small movie theater in the Malaysian town where her grandmother grew up. “With movies, I’m terrified and I can’t watch scary films. With books it’s different because you can just skip the parts that are scary.”
Her skills for describing other worlds notwithstanding, Choo says that one of the challenges of writing the novel was not allowing the in-depth descriptions to become overwrought while keeping the prose tight. “Description is great, but it can be in some ways a crutch,” she says. “Sometimes there were long scenes about what [certain characters] ate for dinner and so on, and I had to cut it back.”
When Choo began the novel, she worked on it for a year or so, got stuck and put it down for almost a year and then picked it up and finished about nine months later. As a mother with two young children, Choo says that finding quiet space and time to write was sometimes a challenge. Nevertheless, this first foray into novel writing was worth the wait—The Ghost Bride is a sublime and mysterious page-turner, full of intrigue and the complications of life on earth and beyond.
Christopher Carbone is a writer living in New York City. He also writes for The Guardian and Urban Times. Follow him on Twitter.