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368 pages, Hardcover
First published April 6, 2013
It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.The star of this book is not Li Lan. It is not her book; the focal point is not the very mild romance, it is not the mystery. The overwhelming show-stealer is the setting, the background, the history, the superstition and traditional beliefs of turn-of-the-century Malaya.
They had all my favorite kinds of kuih—the soft steamed nyonya cakes made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with palm sugar or shredded coconut. There were delicate rolled biscuits called love letters and pineapple tarts pressed out of rich pastry. Bowls of toasted watermelon seeds were passed around, along with fanned slices of mango and papaya.The author is of Malaysian descent, and her portrayal of the country shows her in-depth knowledge of Malaysia and its wonderfully rich history. It also shows clearly and understandably, her love for it. I also grew to love the setting and the country as if it were my own. It is beautifully portrayed, with tremendous respect for all the cultures and social classes represented. For me, the true star of the book is its setting, both of it. The real world, and the ghostly one. The superstitions, myths, legends, all are wonderfully told and portrayed.
I had seen some of the painted hell scrolls that depicted the gruesome fates awaiting sinners. There were people being boiled in oil or sawed in half by horse and ox-headed demons. Others were forced to climb mountains of knives or were pounded into powder by enormous mallets. Gossips had their tongues ripped out, hypocrites and tomb robbers were disemboweled. Unfilial children were frozen in ice. The worst was the lake of blood into which suicides and women who had died in childbirth or aborted their children were consigned.I was utterly immersed and fascinated by the setting, and it feels so satisfying to read about something about which I'm familiar. This book would be even more fascinating to someone without a deep understanding of the culture. There is so much to be learned, so much to be gleaned from within this beautifully written book.
My father’s withdrawal from the world meant that he had sought out no friends with sons and had arranged no match for me. For the first time I began to fully comprehend why Amah was continually angry with him on this subject. The contrast between the realization of his neglect and the fondness I had for my father was painful. 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.Her father is not a despicable character, despite his faults. Formerly a wealthy merchant and a scholar, he now isolates himself from the world with the help of the opium pipe. Li Lan's father's story is a sad one, and even though he truly is a negligent father, I cannot despise him as a character. I find him tragic, but never reprehensible.
...my father said, “What, you don’t want to be a widow at almost eighteen? Spend your life in the Lim mansion wearing silk? But you probably wouldn’t be allowed any bright colors.” He broke into his melancholy smile. “Of course I didn’t accept. How would I dare? Though if you didn’t care for love or children, it might not be so bad. You would be housed and clothed all the days of your life.”Her father never pressures her into this decision. He knows his faults, he regrets it, but like an addict, he cannot change his ways. Regardless, he still loves his daughter, he respects her decision...his daughter is a constant reminder to him of his much-beloved wife, whom he has long lost.
Despite my terror, I felt a slow burning in my stomach. Why should I be married to this autocratic buffoon, alive or dead?His threats are not empty promises. Tian Chiang's influence seemingly reaches beyond the afterlife and Li Lan's dreams. He torments and terrorizes her to such an extent that her spirit dissipates...she is turned into a shadow, a living ghost. Forced into the parallel ghostly underworld, Li Lan has to solve a number of mysteries and make some questionable alliances in order to return to the world of the living.
“I don’t think so.”
“I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t want to marry you!”
Lim Tian Ching’s eyes narrowed into slits. Despite my bold words, my heart quailed. “You don’t have a choice in this matter. I’ll ruin your father.”
“Then I’ll become a nun.”
“You don’t know the extent of my influence! I’ll haunt you; I’ll haunt your father; I’ll haunt that meddling amah of yours.” He was raging now. “The border officials are on my side, and they said I have a right to you!”
“Well, you are dead! Dead, dead, dead!” I shrieked.
What was happening out in the world of men? Had Tian Bai talked to his uncle again? What were we to do with our debts? How I wished I could go out and make inquiries by myself. If only I had a brother or a cousin to rely on. 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.Despite all this, I cannot really relate to her as a character, however sympathetic I am to her plight. She is a very small fish in a very large pond, and I can't help but feel that she lacks---life. No pun intended.
“The problem with the dead was that they all wanted someone to listen to them.”
"The problem with the dead was that they all wanted someone to listen to them."
“Estaba enfadada, desesperada, y ya no me importaba nada. Pero realmente no creo que mi intención fuera morir.”
"Las horas, días y años que se habían desvanecido en su neblina de opio exigieron un pago por mi futuro."Hasta que un día la petición de matrimonio del hijo de una de las familias más ricas de Malaca llega a su hogar, el problema es que el joven con el que proponen casar a Li murió hace un año en extrañas circunstancias.
"Esta práctica de organizar el matrimonio de una persona muerta era poco común, generalmente sostenida para aplacar un espíritu. Una concubina fallecida que había tenido un hijo podría casarse oficialmente para elevar su estatus a esposa. O dos amantes que murieron trágicamente podrían unirse después de la muerte. Eso lo sabía. Pero casar a los vivos con los muertos era algo raro y, de hecho, horrible."Indignada por la irresponsabilidad de su padre y confundida por la petición de matrimonio de la familia Lim para convertirse en la novia fantasma de su fallecido hijo Lim Tian Ching, Li Lan se desespera ante la idea de no tener el futuro que ella soñaba.
"Porque, cuando el ciclo de violencia escapa de sus confines en el infierno, provoca terremotos, riadas y otras calamidades en el mundo de los vivos."
“I was angry, desperate, and I didn't care about anything anymore. But I really don't think my intention was to die.”
"The hours, days, and years that had bled away in his opium haze demanded a payment from my future.."Until one day, the marriage petition of the son of one of the richest families in Malacca comes to their door, the problem is that the young man they propose to marry Li died a year ago under strange circumstances.
"This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to a wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence."Outraged by her father's irresponsibility and confused by the Lim family's marriage petition to become the ghost bride of their deceased son Lim Tian Ching, Li Lan despairs at the thought of not having the future she dreamed of.
"For when the cycle of violence escapes its confines in hell, it causes earthquakes, floods, and other calamities."
“It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”
“The town of Malacca was very still, dreaming under the tropical sun of its past glories, when it was the pearl of port cities along the Straits.”
“The hours, days, and years that had bled away in his opium haze demanded a payment from my future.”
“[T]o marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence.”