BookBrowse Reviews Ghost Month by Ed Lin

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Ghost Month

by Ed Lin

Ghost Month by Ed Lin X
Ghost Month by Ed Lin
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2014, 336 pages
    Jun 2015, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Linda Hitchcock
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About this Book



A mystery that recklessly builds to a crescendo, Ghost Month is a story with a great sense of place: the enigmatic Taiwan.

Ghost Month is a unique and nuanced work of literary fiction — a murder mystery set in the seedy underbelly of Taipei, and a very satisfying read. It seized my attention from the first sentence, "When I found out the girl I was going to marry was murdered…" in a paragraph that continued on, setting a dark emotional tone of futility and despair as well as conveying an ambiguity about the relationship between the girl and the narrator. Protagonist Jing-nan is this narrator, a sympathetic character at ease in Taiwan's shadowy Shilin Night Market, replete with outsiders, dodgy characters and hungry tourists shopping for sustenance, trinkets and excitement. Everyone there has closely held secrets. In his adopted persona of "Taiwan Johnny," Jing-nan becomes the jocular English-speaking shill, entertaining and selling the night's fare at his tiny market stall cafe. There, he coaxes revelers to try unfamiliar yet authentically Chinese delicacies such as crispy pig intestine and sour pickles; favored low-cost fare at his third generation business. (Readers eager to learn more about the fusion cuisine of Taipei in great detail might be interested to read an online article "Taiwan: A Secret Foodie Wonderland" which is devoted to the explosive night market scene in the capital city and includes a mention of Shilin Market featured in the mystery).

Jing-nan's multi-lingual engaging patter puts wary sightseers at ease and conceals his melancholic despair at the seeming immutability of his life. Dreams began to die after he inherited the family market stall. Childhood friends and teenage sweethearts, Jing-nan and Huang Zheng-lian - Johnny and Julia - shared a dream of achieving success by leaving Taiwan to attend top American colleges and secure good jobs, then marrying, leaving their shabby market rat existence behind. Julia graduated high school as valedictorian and went off to university in New York. Jing-nan packed his bags and went to UCLA. They vowed to sever contact until they could attain their objectives. However, before sophomore year, only child Jing-nan was summoned home to see his terminally ill father. His mother died in a car crash en route to the airport to pick him up and, three weeks later, his grief-stricken father died leaving him bereft and tethered to Taipei. Instead of an inheritance, he was left with a market stall heavily burdened by usurious debt incurred by his grandfather that could not be erased.

Seven years later Jing-nan remains duty-bound, constricted in a joyless existence. He has renamed the market stall Unknown Pleasures in homage to the band Joy Division's first album. (See Beyond the Book.) He obsessively, compulsively, continually plays their tracks and collects rare pressings and album art. The music and legacy of this short-lived post punk English band is an emblematic recurring theme, as essential to the story as any of the characters. Joy Division articulated alienation, a pervasive atmosphere of gloom, and a nihilistic denial of future in both their lyrics and music, all of which resonates with the anguish and sorrow experienced by Jing-nan.

And so the novel begins with the death of Julia Huang, shot in a roadside kiosk. Brilliant Julia, over-extended with too many courses, took a short cut and was expelled from NYU's honor program for plagiarizing a paragraph. Disgraced, she returned home without communicating with her would-be fiancé and became a "betel nut beauty." Betel nut sellers are generally desperate, young attractive women regarded by polite society as akin to prostitutes. Barred from working within city limits, the skimpily and provocatively clad young women sell the mild stimulant, areca nuts, wrapped in betel leaves from booths along the highways.

Jing-nan embarks on a dangerous quest to uncover the mystery of why Julia would seek such a profession and to learn who killed her. He is alternately aided and hindered by well depicted characters that include former classmates. The novel has an almost palpable tension and excitement that builds and intensifies as Jing-nan ignores all advice to stop his investigation.

In Taiwan - described by author Ed Lin as the most superstitious place in the world - the entire month of August is "ghost month," dedicated to commemorating the dead. It's believed by Taoists and Buddhists that ghostly spirits emerge from the lower realm to visit living descendants, who must honor them with food offerings, shrines, scriptures and the burning of incense and paper money. Jing-nan eschews superstitions, yet Julia haunts him throughout the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations. Throughout the month, while the observant honor the dead in more traditional ways, he awakens night after night to dreams of Julia and spends his days pursuing leads and independently investigating her shocking death.

Native New Yorker Lin, who is of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, has clearly researched every aspect of the culture, customs and beliefs that enrich Ghost Month. He depicts the prevailing culture of this vibrant international city, and hones in on key elements of social behavior, language and mores. Ghost Month is superbly written and provides plenty of conversational fodder making it an ideal selection for book clubs.

Reviewed by Linda Hitchcock

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2014, and has been updated for the July 2015 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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