The Hungry Ghosts (2009) – Anne BERRY

Publishing imprints are strange beasts – for some people they mean nothing, but for others (usually obsessive, like myself), they are vitally important. And they really are, I think. While they may not always get it right, publishers usually publish books in certain imprints depending on where they want to pitch it to the market. HarperCollins’ new imprint, Blue Door, has not even released its first book yet, but if The Hungry Ghosts is anything to go by, I’ll be keeping an eye out.

The Safford family are one of the most important families in British-occupied Hong Kong. Their daughter, Alice, is an unruly child who is always getting into trouble. What her family does not realise, though, is that the reason for this is that she is haunted by a hungry ghost – a 12 year old Chinese girl raped and murdered some twenty years before. As Alice’s life rapidly spirals out of control, more ghosts come to her, and she must try and stop them taking over her life before it is too late.

It took me a while to get into this novel, though I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason for this. When it finally clicked for me, though, I read about three quarters of it in one afternoon. I wonder if the thing that was putting me off was the way the story was told. Each chapter is told from an alternating viewpoint, and many of the chapters are told by incidental characters. This doesn’t mean the story is fragmented – far from it, considering these chapters are very sequential, and we often get the same event told from different points of view. To some extent, Berry does this quite well, and some of the voices are quite distinctive, particularly the Ghost and Myrtle (Alice’s mother), but many of the incidental and more peripheral main characters do tend to blend into one another.

Yet, this fragmented view is a neat trick in a book that centres itself as a family saga. Despite the literary fireworks surrounding some of the magical realism facets, being able to tell a family saga from the point of the view of the entire family is a good idea. To set it against the British occupation of Hong Kong (going all the way up to the handover in 1997) is also a good plan – Berry is clearly writing to her strengths, but the Saffords are clearly very ‘British’, if you get my meaning. They have servants, Ralph (the father) works for the Governor, Myrtle is the perfect socialite in English circles, their children are bundled off to the motherland for a proper education, and it’s all just a little bit colonial. Which makes their inevitable fall tie in quite nicely to the eventual fall of the Safford family, though it is interesting to see that Harry (the son) is actually the one to make it out moderately sane, considering his less than happy childhood.

What makes this book quite unique, though, are the magical realist parts of the novel, Inspired by the Chinese festival Yue Lan, this book takes a simple concept from Chinese Buddhism, and spins an entire novel around it. I like the concept of hungry ghosts – spirits of people and beings that refuse to move on, and instead attach themselves to unsuspecting humans, ruining their lives. These things are clearly dangerous creatures, and as Alice acquires more and more of them, she is weighed down by guilt and depression, forcing her to resort to desperate measures. Thinking of these ghosts, I can see that maybe Berry uses them as a metaphor for something else – Alice is an unwanted child and is subject to all kinds of callous and careless treatment, particular from her mother, who is out to make Alice’s life as difficult as possible. Not on purpose, mind, but she has such contempt and such little patience for Alice’s ways, she takes it out on Alice herself. Perhaps, then, we can see the ghosts she carries as guilt over this childhood, perhaps she feels somewhat responsible for the way she was treated. Either way, these ghosts are causing Alice a great depression, and it is thoroughly believeable – the lead ghost is a malevolent, childish creature that I personally felt little sympathy for. This makes the ending a little hard to swallow, though I think I can see what Berry was trying to do.

If this is the kind of novel Blue Door are going to be publishing regularly, I’d keep a look out. I promise this isn’t a plug for them (even though I keep mentioning them), but this novel is quite good. There are certainly some things that don’t quite fit in, but this is Berry’s first attempt, and I’m very interested to see what she does next.

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