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Monday, November 01, 2010

Hungry and Weird

The Hungry Ghosts, Anne Berry

I've been fortunate to have found some wonderful books at the library recently. Actually, I didn't find this one, Baby Bear got it from her school library, and I am impressed that they are buying new, good quality books like this in a state school these days.

It is a whimsical but quite hard-hitting mixture of family drama and magic realism, set mostly in Hong Kong from the late 1950s to the handover to China in the 1990s. Some of it moves to England and Paris, and it ends up in modern day Hong Kong. The author lived in Hong Kong and has drawn on her own childhood for a wonderful sense of place, but I sincerely hope that the actual narrative is made up!

It seamlessly blends the story of a dysfunctional, expat family with Chinese ideas of ghosts (you will find out quite a lot about the festival of Yue Lan, the 'ghost month'). Alice, the main character, dopes not fit in with the rest of her family. Her sisters ignore her, her mother positively hates her, only her brother and father love her at all. She is a 'problem' child - her mother 'needed' to produce a son, and Alice was the third girl in a row and deeply resented by her. In early adolescence she is 'possessed' by the ghost of Lin Shui, who was brutally raped and murdered by a Japanese soldier during the Occupation of Hong Kong in WW2, at about the same age that Alice is at the time the haunting begins. By taking up residence in Alice's body, Lin Shui can hang onto 'life', actually a halfway house between real life and real death, and keep herself amused. Unfortunately her idea of amusement seems to be behaving in a poltergeist way, And Alice is increasingly blamed for disruptive, out-of-control behaviour.

Alice's sisters are sent to boarding school in England where they behave appallingly and are ultimately expelled. Their life continues equally badly in Hong Kong, as they drink and sleep their way through the colony. No matter how badly they behave, however, it is always Alice and her 'problems' that the female members of her family carp over.

Alice inevitably turns to drink, gets pregnant, has an abortion, drinks more, the family functions less and less with every passing page. The critical turning point comes when she/Lin Shui behave badly at an official function, gets dragged home by her furious mother, and her much loved dog Bear is run over. The mother refuses to let her take the body home to bury it, instead hurling it over a cliff.

Alice leaves Hong Kong to live with her grandmother and uncle in London. The ghosts (oh yes, she has been joined by other ghosts - but I won't spoil that surprise, you need to read the book!) don't like it there and their behavious cause her to be kicked out. She is a hopeless drunk by this point, hardly surprisingly, and has a breakdown in the supermarket where she is working. She is rescued by a magical woman who takes her home and cares for her and performs some sort of magic, which I presume is meant to be, or at least reference, some sort of voodoo, and the ghosts lose a lot of their power. Alice, slightly healed, moves to Paris, makes a disasterous marriage, divorces, and ends up happily running and, finally, inheriting a restaurant. The ghosts have come back, of course, but seem to behave better when Alice has her life under more control - a symbiotic relationship? She writes to her parents three times but her mother always intercepts the letters and destroys them. This destroys her father emotionally, who loved Alice the most of his children and is devastated that she has vanished and made no attempt to contact him.

Eventually the inevitable happens, and the parents return to England to retire. Their horrible, grasping daughters 'deal' with them, one making sure she has somewhere to live free of charge while supposedly looking after them, the other ensuring that she need not actually do anything but that her share of the inheritence will be comfortable. The father dies. Alice's name is not put on the gravestone.

Alice eventually decides to make an attempt in person to contact her family after 30 years. She tracks them down quite easily. An appalling tea party happens at her brother's house, a scene that goes down in the annals of so good that you cringe but will remember it for ever. The ghosts play up BADLY. Alice is devastated at her father's death. She visits the grave and is further devastated to find that her name is not on it. She visits her mother, mouldering away into dementia in a nursing home, and finds out that the letters never reached her father and that he died believing she had abandoned him.

Alice tries to kill herself by walking into the sea, but the ghost of Lin Shui saves her, for her own selfish reasons. If Alice dies, she loses her own tentative grasp on life. Alice decides to return to Hong Kong.

The book finishes with Alice living a modest life in Hong Kong, nothing like the opulence of her expat days, but happy. Lin Shui finally lets go during a Yue Lan festival. But once a year she comes back as a Hungry Ghost for three days.

It was an amazing book, absolutely unputdownable. And beautifully written. I am going to seek out Anne Berry's second book and read it. Read it if you enjoy a bit of horror with your magic realism and your family dramas!

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