This Hallowe’en I’m choosing a novel by Chinese-American author Lisa See. `Peony in Love’ was first published in 2007. It is easy to find in paperback or ebook editions and there is also an abridged audio cd. This novel is set in 17th century China and some of the characters are based on real people. The author was inspired by two classic works of Chinese literature – `The Peony Pavilion’, a late 16th century opera considered so subversive that one Emperor ordered all copies to be burned, and a commentary on the opera written by the three wives of a poet. See’s novel is narrated by Peony, a romantic girl `on the edge of sixteen’ who lives with her family in the city of Hangzhou. Peony’s scholarly father is unusual in believing that girls should be educated and he allows her to attend a performance of `The Peony Pavilion’. Peony’s mother has trained her never to show her feelings but during the opera Peony meets and falls passionately in love with a handsome young poet. She is distraught when her parents announce that they have arranged a suitable marriage for her. Peony stops eating.

At this point you are probably wondering why I am choosing an historical romance as a Fantasy Read. The answer is that, in spite of the title, `Peony in Love’ is an extraordinary, many-layered ghost story. Oriental ghosts are often jealous or unfulfilled women. Peony herself is obsessed with a ghost story – `The Peony Pavilion’ – in which a girl longs for a young scholar she has only seen in a dream. The girl dies and is buried in a beautiful garden. When the young scholar visits the garden, she appears as a ghost and seduces him. Their love is so powerful that when he opens her grave, she comes back to life. Peony passionately believes in this kind of love and dies before her wedding day. The remainder of the novel is narrated by Peony from beyond the grave but the Afterlife is full of shocks for her. A series of misunderstanding have prevented her from realizing that her handsome young poet, Wu Ren, was the man her father had chosen to be her husband, so she has starved herself to death for nothing. Peony has not been bad enough to be sent to any of the gruesome Chinese hells but she finds herself stuck on `The Viewing Terrace of Lost Souls’ from where she can look down on events in her home town.  The formidable spirit of her grandmother makes Peony see that she has become a `Hungry Ghost’, a spirit condemned to roam the earth. When she discovers that her beloved Ren has married another woman she decides to meddle in his life and haunt the new bride. Peony still has much to learn about life and love before she can continue her spiritual journey.

All See’s books are very well researched and `Peony in Love’  is packed with interesting details about life and death in 17th century China. As Peony looks back on her childhood,  you get an unnervingly  strong sense of  what it must have been like to grow up as a privileged  girl at this period. Some of the details – such as the colourful embroideries produced by many of the women  – are beautiful but this is not an idealized view of the past. These women are virtually imprisoned within their homes and the agony of having your feet broken and deformed to become `Golden Lilies’ is all too vividly described. Against the odds, some of the female characters find ways to express themselves and break into the mainly male literary world.  For me though it is the traditional beliefs about death and the dead that are the most fascinating. Having once spent `The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts’ in Singapore and watched people burning wads of `Bank of Hell’ notes and paper models of houses and cars for the benefit of their ancestors, I know how strong these beliefs still are. In the Afterlife, Peony has to deal with demon bureaucrats, Bad Dogs Village and the Mirror of Retribution, helped by the rituals performed by her grieving family. When she comes back as a Hungry Ghost, Peony has to cope with restrictions like not being able to turn corners and an insatiable hunger  which forces her to scavenge the food offerings made to more fortunate spirits.

Most ghost stories don’t make you sympathise with a malignant ghost but `Peony in Love’  does. Peony’s plight may be self-inflicted but I always wanted this lonely ghost to find some sort of resolution. At the emotional heart of the book are Peony’s evolving relationships with her grandmother and mother. Peony has been taught to revere her deceased grandmother as the perfect, selfless wife and mother but when she meets her on `The Viewing Terrace of Lost Souls’  she discovers an angry woman who has little but contempt for the men of the family. The story grandmother tells about the events which led to her death during the Manchu invasion is deeply shocking. Peony has always thought of her mother as being rigidly conventional but she learns how very different her mother was as a young woman.  She comes to understand that parents can make terrible mistakes when they are trying to protect the children they love. If you want a ghost story that gives you more than just chills and thrills, `Peony in Love’ could be the book for you. Happy Hallowe’en.