‘You had to die first before you could be reborn’.
Today the mysteries of Asia are open to all visitors. My own son and daughter in law travelled there for nearly a year before settling down. They showed me images of the amazing cleanliness and high -rise buildings of Singapore and the rain forest of the Cameron Highlands on Penang Island. It was all very different to when I lived in Malaysia in the 1960s as a young child.
This enchanting novel also crosses the generations and the years of progress which now sees the simple existence on Penang Island of which I had experienced, now being a place of luxury holiday destination resorts and property developers. So, when Jessamyn Teoh returns to Penang alongside her mother and father after their somewhat unsuccessful lives in America I too travelled back.
Jessamyn (known as Jess) soon starts to hear more voices than the odd thing she thought she imagined before she left the US. She is stressed, broke, forced to live with her parents in relative’s accommodation and is separated from her girlfriend wondering when it will be the right time to reveal her sexuality amongst old fashioned relatives. The voice becomes singular and loud and is Jess’s grandmother Ah Ma. Although now deceased this is Jess’s extended family, this is a ghost and one whose plans lead Jess into all sorts of tricky situations. There is a delicate humour in the tale, particularly between Jess and her parents. Also, as the spirit world and gods of the past (and often the present amongst Malaysian temples and offerings) come crashing into Jess’s reality.
Family ties are intrinsic to the plot and to Ah Ma’s insistence on using Jess as the conduit for her spirit and final revenge. I loved looking at pictures of Malaysian temples and of the locations in Penang which to my young eyes had seemed mystical and scary as a child. Now it still seems the progress of time, technology (everything as you imagine in life is done through phones)and even the attempt through corruption and greed to overcome the old ways, needs a charm, offering or godly blessing. But this is not a whimsical ghost tale as real violence follows through from the clashes of past and present. A body as a host is not something that can naturally protect you at all times and you may bear more than spiritual scars! The description of the food is tantalising apart from the visit to the ‘wet market’….
As a personal read I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen this book because of the subject matter despite the location, but was delighted to have it sent for read and review by nb. This is not a debut for the author, and other titles seem also to suggest an interest in the spiritual and mystical world. There is perhaps a slight immaturity in the main character and dialogue but overall I was immersed in Jess and her family – although unlike some spirits she came out in one piece!
I think book groups will be intrigued by the subject of the book and if they have travelled to Asia on holiday be keen to mark down how those temples whose images often just make nice photos or Instagram shares have deeper meaning within a society of which I was glad to reconnect.
Reviewed by Philipa Coughlan
Published by Macmillan; Main Market edition (10 Jun. 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1447299998