I am delighted that today is my stop on the blog tour for The Hungry Ghost, a book which has stayed in my heart since reading it, courtesy of NetGalley and Pushkin Press, in August. This moving and complex story by H S Norup weaves an incredible number of threads into a relatively short book, pulling them all into alignment at the end to create a perfect picture.
The story takes off with 12-year-old Freja being handed over like a package at the airport to change continents and families due to her mother’s unspecified illness. She leaves behind her small town life in Denmark to be plunged into the steamy, international melting-pot of life in Singapore. Her sense of alienation is compounded by the unwelcome addition of a stepmother and half-brothers and a landscape that bears no resemblance to the forests of Sweden where she has previously enjoyed outdoor pursuits with her father on his paternal visits. Freja is a dedicated scout and has come to Singapore prepared for an outdoor culture; she has her Swiss Army knife, compass, combat trousers and many other survival accessories. She is not prepared for a life of frilly dresses, parties and social media which seems to be the milieu of Clementine, her glamorous step-mother. She also disdains contact with her twin half-brothers.
H S Norup’s writing captures Freja’s sense of displacement perfectly, emphasised further by the fact that her beloved father seems to be more interested in his high pressure, deal-making career, with his unexpected business trips to the financial hotspots of southeast Asia and inability to speak to her without constantly checking his phone screen.
Unable to sleep due to her unhappiness combined with jet-lag and wishing to pursue her natural instinct to be outside, Freja steps out into the garden on her first night and is surprised to see a tall, silent Chinese girl there. When the girl reappears in daylight and beckons Freja to follow her, she is surprised to be led to an overgrown tropical wilderness not far from the manicured street where she lives. On her way back home she learns that the wilderness is Bukit Brown, an old Chinese cemetery and that August is the month of the Hungry Ghost festival, when unhappy spirits roam the streets eating the offerings left for them by grieving relatives.
Despite being warned by Clementine to stay away from the cemetery with its dangers ranging from snakes to unstable ground, Freja is compelled to follow her ghost and help her in her quest to unravel snippets of memories and discover her identity. It appears that the overwhelming fear that her mother will forget her is the catalyst for Freja to assist this unhappy ghost. As the mystery of Ling’s past and connections with Freja’s own ancestors begins to emerge, small clues that Freja has a significant part of her own identity locked away are dropped into the narrative. Aspects of traditional Chinese folklore are blended with modern-day life at international school and the role of domestic servants now and in recent history are also examined.
The crafting of the narrative is so deftly handled that the reader never loses sight of the central quest despite the lure of dangled hints just on the edge of your peripheral vision. As you desperately reach for these missing threads to complete the tapestry you have to take a moment to admire the author’s skill. The denouement as the Hungry Ghost festival closes is brimming with tension as Freja battles with mythical creatures and poignantly realises that she has made true friends in Singapore.
The weaving and contrasting of Western and Eastern attitudes to death and grieving are wonderfully combined and as the narrative gaps are closed, the importance of remembering the dead, treasuring their memories and being grateful for those who love us is brought to the fore.
This book has clearly been written for the upper end of the MG readership with its ultimately hopeful conclusion, but in my opinion it is a satisfying read for anyone over the age of 10. I was deeply impressed at the construction of the plot and fascinated to learn a little about an aspect of Chinese culture and Buddhist and Taoist tradition. I was also left curious to find out more about the transition of Singapore to the global powerhouse that it is today from the society described during Ling’s childhood. I am particularly pleased to have read this book during a summer when I haven’t been able to travel; it highlights the power of a great story to transport the reader beyond their physical reality.
I am grateful to #NetGalley and Pushkin Press for allowing me to read an eARC of The Hungry Ghost and to Poppy Stimpson for inviting me to join this tour. Do check out the other stops on the blog tour and read the views of an incredible selection of book bloggers.