The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

“It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”

A few years back I read and was positutely grossed out by Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger as I found its male love interest to be both a perv & bully. Thankfully, Yangsze Choo gives less page time to its love interest(s), as the story is more focused on Li Lan having to navigate the Chinese afterlife.

“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 first few chapters are certainly compelling as Choo immerses her readers in colonial Malaysia and brings to life Malacca and Li Lan’s household. Despite her family’s good standing in society, her father’s fall into financial ruin and opioid addiction throw Li Lan’s future in jeopardy.

“The hours, days, and years that had bled away in his opium haze demanded a payment from my future.”

Li Lan’s father then receives a peculiar offer: a well-off and influential family, the Lim, wants Li Lan to become the ghost bride of Tian Ching, the family’s recently deceased male heir. Rarely practiced, ghost marriages seek to soothe restless spirits or to fulfill promises. Li Lan does not take this offer seriously, yet, when she is invited to the Lim mansion she finds herself growing intrigued by this powerful family, in particular Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai. Li Lan’s blossoming feelings for him lead her to believe that their two families might eventually come to arrange a marriage between them, especially when she learns that the Lim patriarch is a friend of her father and that her mother was related to Madame Lim.
Things however do not go Li Lan’s way as the Lim seem intent on making her Tian Ching’s ghost bride. Worse, Tian Ching begins to haunt her and her household, invading her dreams, and insisting on their union.

A grave oversight severs Li Lan from her physical self, and she is left in a state of in-between. To return to the land of the living she has to contend with the ghost cities of the Chinese afterlife. She soon learns that the afterlife is as corrupt as the real-life world. To return to ‘life’, Li Lan has to hide the fact that she is not a ghost, face the afterlife’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and escape the notice of demons and Tian Ching, who is supported by his other dead relatives. She finds herself aided by a helpful spirit.

“[T]o marry the living to the dead was a rare and, indeed, dreadful occurrence.”

I genuinely thought that this book would be about Li Lan becoming a ghost bride, but she never does. Her would-be ghost husband is a bratty and frankly pitiful villain. Most of the story takes place in the afterlife, which is a pity as I would have liked more of a back-and-forth between these two worlds, especially given that once Li Lan is trapped in the ghost realm, she is cut off from her Amah, whose presence provided much needed female solidarity. When it comes to the ghost cities and the afterlife the world-building felt surprisingly weak. The ghosts and spirits Li Lan encounter there should have been fascinating and mysterious but at times I forgot that she was not in the real world given how mundane it all felt. This may have been the point, to emphasize how powerful people there are exploiting others or using their wealth to keep living the life they did in the mortal realm…but it just didn’t make for an entertaining reading experience. The Lim family wasn’t that interesting either, which is a pity as the narrative plays out in a way that makes you think that they are much more villainous or powerful than they are. Li Lan’s love interests were painfully dull, one was a complete case of insta love the other seemed a rip-off of Spirited Away. The conceit here, of a mortal trapped in the spirit realm, has been done before and better. From Ghibli’s take to YA books like The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea (which was actually published more recently than this novel but hey ho i read that last year). I think the ghost bride premise combined with a murder mystery would have made for a much more captivating story. I could have also done without the cartoonishly mean/evil villains. It seems cheap to me to make bad characters be described as physically unattractive, or if they are beautiful then they are a cold type of beauty. I mean, it gives me Disney energy.
Li Lan’s voice was rather generic, a light take on the (supposedly) ‘spunky’ heroine type of protagonist. Her relationship with her parents is sadly sidelined in favor of focusing on petty disagreements and her profoundly vanilla love triangle.

It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to love this as I was at first drawn to Choo’s charming and humorous storytelling which brought to mind authors like Zen Cho and Diana Wynne Jones. Nevertheless, while Choo’s afterlife may not have grabbed me all that much I did find her portrayal of colonial Malaysia insightful, as she is able to provide a lot of historical and cultural anecdotes and explanations. We are also made to understand the limitations experienced by women such as Li Lan at that time, and the dynamic between a patriarch’s wives and off-springs.

If this happens to be on your tbr list I recommend you still give it a shot as YMMV.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

goodreads thestorygraph letterboxd tumblr ko-fi


Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: