The Hungry Ghost
By SH Lim
Title : The Hungry Ghost
Author: Anne Berry
TOKL Rating: 3/5
Harper Collins, RM35.90
We’re all too familiar with the season of the hungry ghosts. The burning of incense, the late evening Chinese operas on makeshift stages, the offering of food and drink to the dead-but-not-quite departed. Against this magical backdrop, Anne Berry, who was born in Hong Kong to an English-administrator father, sets her novel.
A lot is going on in her debut work. Like ‘Rashoman’, it employs multiple narrators. Each unfolding the Stafford family saga from a different perspective and layering it, like kuih lapis, with complexity and a flavor which should be richer than the sum of its parts.
A prologue by the ghost of a young Chinese girl, Lin Shui, launches the novel. She tells how she was raped then killed by a Japanese soldier at a time when the world was at war with itself. Then very quickly the story skips to 2003, the funeral of Ralph Safford, the patriarch, who served for a time as a high-ranking member of the English administration in Hong Kong. The mystery of the absent Alice, the Saffords’ youngest daughter, seeps into the funeral, and like a catalyst, it causes memories to bubble up and each narrator reaches back to explain it. In the course of their discursive story-telling, they reveal the relationships among and dynamics of the Staffords and paint a dysfunctional family, coping with life with English stiff-upper-lip denial. This ghost is part of their story because, she reveals, ‘As [Alice] listens to echoes of the past, I slide into her and instantly feel my strength returning.’ Yes, ‘The Exorcist’ kind of body- invasion which allows the ghost to know Alice intimately. But LinShui isn’t the only ghost. In essence, all are dealing with their ghosts. Each hungry for something. Each trying to fill a gap, justify some past action, ‘longing for nothing so much as peace’.
Beyond their interconnected stories is the story of the English in the East and the unrest in Hong Kong leading up to the handover in 1997. And beneath what has been labeled the most benign colonization lie the colonial pride and prejudices which continue to infect the post-colonial minds of the now independent peoples.
While this novel provides a good read with its magical, engaging and complex plot, the narrative voices blur to the point of sameness.