Ghost Bride (Choo)

The Ghost Bride 
Yangsze Choo, 2013
362 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062227324

Yangsze Choo’s stunning debut, The Ghost Bride, is a startlingly original novel infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, and unexpected supernatural twists.

Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?
Night after night, Li Lan is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, where she must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family.

Reminiscent of Lisa See’s Peony in Love and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Ghost Bride is a wondrous coming-of-age story and from a remarkable new voice in fiction. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1973-74 (?)
Raised—Thailand, Germany, Japan, and Singapore
Education—B.A., Harvard University
Currently—lives in California, USA

Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard, she worked as a management consultant and at a start-up before writing her first novel. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time). (From .)

Book Reviews
Like all good literary heroines, Li Lan is motherless, impoverished, educated beyond the custom of the times, and uninterested in marriage, especially to someone who's dead. Since she lives in 19th-century Malacca, the British colony in what is now Malaysia, this is a situation whose disadvantages Jane Austen herself would appreciate.
Martha T. Moore - USA Today

In her debut novel, Choo tells the unlikely story of a young Chinese woman who marries a dead ancient custom among the Chinese in Malaysia called “spirit marriage.” ... Choo’s clear and charming style creates an alternate reality where the stakes are just as high as in the real world, combining grounded period storytelling with the supernatural.
Publishers Weekly

Li Lan is from an upper-class but financially destitute Chinese family in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia). When the wealthy Lim family proposes that she enter into a spirit marriage with their recently deceased son, she reluctantly accepts.... Choo’s first novel explores in a delicate and thought-provoking way the ancient custom of spirit marriages, which were thought to appease restless spirits. —Caitlin Bronner, MLIS, Pratt Inst., Brooklyn
Library Journal

Choo's remarkably strong and arresting first novel explores the concept of Chinese "spirit marriages" in late-nineteenth-century Malaya through the eyes of the highly relatable Li Lan.... With its gripping tangles of plot and engaging characters, this truly compelling read is sure to garner much well deserved attention.

Young Li Lan's family was once rich and respected...[so] she's shocked and disturbed when her father asks her if she'll consent to become a ghost bride to the dead son of Malacca's wealthiest family.... Choo's multifaceted tale is sometimes difficult to follow with its numerous characters and subplots, but the narrative is so rich in Chinese folklore, mores and the supernatural that it's nonetheless intriguing and enlightening. A haunting debut.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Perplexed by her father's absences and worried by finances and marriage negotiations, Li Lan wonders, "What was happening out in the world of men?... Despite the fact that my feet were not bound, I was confined to domestic quarters as though a rope tethered my ankle to our front door." How does Li Lan chafe against notions of femininity, and in what ways does she rebel?

2. Malacca is a city settled by various ethnic groups over the centuries, with a long colonial history as well. The Chinese in Malaya, like Li Lan's family, keep their own practices and dress, but don't follow tradition as rigidly as in China. How does Li Lan benefit from this blending of tradition?

3. After Li Lan gives in to Amah's superstition and visits a medium at the temple, she observes a Chinese cemetery that has been neglected due to fear of ghosts: "How different it was from the quiet Malay cemeteries, whose pawn-shaped Islamic tombstones are shaded by the frangipani tree, which the Malays call the graveyard flower. Amah would never let me pluck the fragrant, creamy blossoms when I was a child. It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another's superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts." What do you think the comforts of superstition are? As Li Lan interacts with the spirit world, does her perspective on superstition change?

4. Why is Li Lan drawn to Tian Bai when they meet? How do her feelings for him change over the course of the novel, and why?

5. The ghost world Li Lan enters is a richly imagined place governed by complicated bureaucracy. How does the parallel city reflect the world of the living, and in what ways is it different?

6. When Li Lan thinks that she has found her mother—a second wife in the ancestral Lim household—she is shaken by how horrible she is. How does meeting her real mother, Auntie Three, help Li Lan understand her own family?

7. When Li Lan is a wandering spirit, able to observe from another perspective, what does she realize about herself and her world? Are there positive aspects to her time spent outside her body?

8. Li Lan thinks, "All who have seen ghosts and spirits are marked with a stain, and far more than Old Wong, I have trespassed where no living person ought have." How has Li Lan's time spent in the realm of the ghost world – speaking with the dead, eating spirit offerings, seeing Er Lang's true identity – changed her? Is it possible for her to go back to normal life?

9. When Er Lang proposes to Li Lan, he warns her, "I wouldn't underestimate the importance of family." Were you surprised by Li Lan's decision at the end of the novel? If you were in her shoes, do you think you would have chosen the same route, with its sacrifices?

10. Did you know anything about traditional Chinese folklore before reading The Ghost Bride? What did you find fascinating or strange about the mythology woven throughout the novel, and the Chinese notions of the afterlife?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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