Li Lan is seventeen. Her mother died of smallpox when she was very young, her father was so scarred by the disease at the same time that he withdrew from society. Once he had a successful business, but the marks of the pox, and grief at the loss of his wife drove him into seclusion and opium. Li Lan knows her family is slipping further and further into poverty, but she is not too happy at the thought of becoming a ghost bride. Only now does she begin to realise just what her family’s isolation has cost her; she has no friends of her own age, no one to go out into the world on her behalf. Her future is looking very uncertain.
I enjoyed the start of this book, and found Li Lan an entertaining character. She is isolated from society because of her father’s actions and so is able to ask other characters what exactly is going on, helping to explain Malaya to the reader. But her naivety didn’t remain entertaining for me. Instead her constant misjudging people began to grate.
Her sudden love didn’t ring true for me either, and while I found the book interesting and I loved the whole idea of the Ghost World, Li Lan’s innocence1 just annoyed me. Which was really disappointing because, as I say, I really liked the setting and the plot.
I’m probably overstating my dislike of Li Lan. I didn’t hate her at all. I thought her growth as a character was really well written; her sudden realisation just how isolated she is, and the way she knows her father is to blame and yet in a way she cannot blame him. And the way she leaps to certain conclusions, when it was obvious to the reader that she was wrong, that annoyed me. It felt as thought the author was trying to create doubt and mystery without creating the atmosphere necessary for that to work.
But I want to emphasis that I did really like parts of it. The Plains of the Dead were great, I loved the whole bureaucracy of the afterworld, judges and minor functionaries. And I really liked the way the author blended so many different religions into her afterlife, and Li Lan’s speculations about other religions and whether other afterlives were different to hers.
I’m a little undecided about the ending. I think maybe Choo wanted to leave it open to sequels, and I do see the attraction, I think that maybe a slightly more worldly Li Lan could make for a very intriguing series of books. I’ll pick up a sequel, if Choo does write one.
stupidity is probably too strong a word but I am tempted to use it ↩