It may seem like a familiar fairy tale. A step-mother, two step-siblings, and a girl who isn’t glamorous. But instead of Prince Charming or a fairy godmother, the object of the girl’s interest is a ghost. Western ghosts (pace Casper, who had to be explicitly labelled “friendly”) are usually malevolent in some way; two new books—one from Danish writer HS Norup, who spent four years in Singapore, and the other from Malaysian writer Hanna Alkaf—feature Asian ghosts who are decidedly more sympathetic.
In HS Norup’s new middle grade novel, The Hungry Ghost, Freja is a Danish-British twelve year-old who is sent to live with her father and glamorous Hong Kong-born stepmother in Singapore. Freja’s mother suffers from depression and is entering a treatment facility back in Denmark, so the plan is for Freja to spend a year in Singapore. When she arrives, it’s the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar and the Hungry Ghost Festival is approaching.
Freja clashes with her step-mother, Clementine, nor does she connect with her twin toddler step-brothers. Instead, she finds solace in the nearby Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Everywhere—under the branches, next to the trail—graves litter the ground. Some are crumbling bricks or greenish cement that stick out of the mass of dead leaves and tree roots and new shoots. Others are decorated with faded colourful tiles and lichen-covered Chinese statues.
She befriends a hungry ghost named Ling who died many years ago: “hungry” because she did not have family to attend to her grave. Freja also makes real friends at school and in the neighborhood, including a boy named Jason Lim. Jason teaches her about ghosts and the Hungry Ghost Festival. With his help, Freja becomes determined to find the truth behind Ling’s story so Ling will no longer need to be a hungry ghost. But as the Hungry Ghost Festival nears, Freja has less and less time in which to figure it all out. If she doesn’t, Ling will wander for another year.
Hanna Alkaf has written a similar story with The Girl and the Ghost, set in Malaysia and involving another twelve year-old girl. Suraya lives alone with her widowed mother in Malaysia. When Suraya was younger, her grandmother died and left her with a pelesit, or grasshopper spirit. At first the pelesit, whom Suraya named “Pink”, is a friendly companion. But as Suraya makes friends, Pink becomes jealous and possessive. To make matters worse, Suraya’s mother sends her to a new school with a more rigorous academic program. Unlike the girls at Freja’s school in The Hungry Ghost, the ones at Suraya’s school are part of a clique that has no room for new girls.
Pink acts up to protect Suraya, playing pranks and worse on the cliquey girls. But Suraya insists on dealing with them herself in a fair manner, not with the aid of a supernatural protector. When a new girl named Jing starts school, she and Suraya bond over reading. They also both have deceased fathers. Jing and her mother, Aunty Soo, are respectful of Suraya’s halal dietary restrictions and often invite her over for meals. Pink soon centers his jealousy on Jing and slowly Suraya realizes what’s going on. But when Jing is physically beaten up by the cliquey girls after another prank from Pink, Suraya realizes enough is enough. She needs to find Pink’s final resting ground so he—and she—will find peace.
But she first needs to enlist the help of Jing. Suraya explains to Jing that the pelesit is created from part of a child’s corpse. Jing’s spirited reaction brings humor to Suraya’s predicament.
“That’s how that thing was made?” Jing’s eyes were wide. “Someone BIT a dead kid’s TONGUE out of his MOUTH?”
“He’s not a thing. He’s a … Pink. And yes, that’s how he was made.”
Without their mothers’ knowledge, the girls skip school to return Pink to the gravesite upcountry in Kampung Kuala Gajah, a few hours from Kuala Lumpur, all while a pawang, or shaman, is on their trail to capture Pink.
Both authors present their stories in an entertaining and humorous manner, with strong girl characters who find strength from their close friends and from within.