In 1930s Malaya a sixteen-year-old girl, dreaming of marriage to her sweetheart, is sold as a concubine to a rich old man desperate for an heir. Trapped, and bullied by his spiteful wife, Yu Lan plans to escape with her baby son, despite knowing that they will pursue her to the ends of the earth.
Four generations later, her great-grandson, Nick, will return to Malaysia, looking for the truth behind the facade of a house cursed by the unhappy past. Nothing can prepare him for what he will find.
This exquisitely rich novel brings to life a vanished world – a world of abandoned ghost houses, inquisitive monkeys, smoky temples and a panoply of gods and demons. A world where a poor girl can be sold to fulfil a rich man’s dream. But though he can buy her body, he can never capture her soul, nor quench her spirit.
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In the slatted light, she glimpsed a flash of white slipping past the open door of the bedchamber. She closed her eyes and in the golden shadows behind her eyelids, saw her again. The girl in white. Long hair flowing loose as she floated across the garden and disappeared between the mango trees into the jungle.
Neuih gwai. Ghost maiden.
Haunting them still.
She considered calling Ho Jie, but the old woman would only ridicule her fears. And it was too early to ask for the shutters to be opened, for there would be no cooling breeze, only searing midday sun. Outside, the neighbourhood dogs snoozed in shady sanctuaries and the macaques had taken to the trees to rest and groom one another. She was alone. The doctor had departed hours ago, leaving the pungent scent of herbs lingering in the room. She had tried to wave him away, but Ho Jie overruled her feeble protest. Once upon a time, the amah wouldn’t have dared question her will, but these days servant had become mistress. The amah’s black trousers and white blouse were merely a cunning disguise, as deceptive as her mild old-lady face and her habit of nodding when she meant no.
So the doctor pounded his dried fungi and desiccated roots into a foul paste, before setting them to boil while he tormented her with needles that wound in a trail along her spine, like the quills of a porcupine. She could have told him it was pointless. Almost as futile as prayer, no matter how many joss sticks you lit.
Now she lay prostrate in her bed, immobilised by the humid air, the medicinal aroma of herbs and her own impotence. Half a century ago she had first lain in this bed, a nervous sixteen-year-old bride, trusting to phoenix and peonies to bring her luck. She had had such expectations, if not of happiness, then at least of the ancestors’ approval. Yet all the dragons and phoenixes in the world hadn’t managed to bestow upon her their promised benevolence.
She glanced again at the open door, wishing that it could all end here. Her son would return soon, tapping at the door to ask after her health. But they both knew she would never recover. She scanned the room, her eyes roaming over gilded cabinets, table and stools inlaid with mother-of-pearl, washstand and dresser littered with pills and potions, before settling on the small desk tucked beneath the window where her writing tools lay. Perhaps it was time for the truth.
Sliding across the silk coverlet, she dropped her feet to the floor and stood holding the bedpost for support. Thick rugs dotted the parquetry like islands. She ventured a few steps, lurching across a field of white chrysanthemums to the table, then a further reel to the desk. She lowered herself onto a stiff-backed chair, dribbled water onto ink-stone, and began grinding ink-stick. Then, weighting a sheet of rice paper, she selected a brush. Yet just as she was about to commit to paper the truth, as she knew it, sharp pain lanced her lower back, spearing into her abdomen and blurring her vision. She had to hurry now or they might never be free.
She had to hope that if her son knew the truth he might stand a chance of surviving a dead girl’s spite. He might find a way to save them, even if he came to despise his mother. Even if he cursed her, all the while burning hell money for her soul.
His hatred would be her penance.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, Carol Jones taught English and Drama at secondary schools before working as an editor of children’s magazines. She is the author of several young adult novels as well as children’s non-fiction.
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