My thanks to Pushkin Press/Steerforth Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
‘Loss and grief is part of life…we cannot forget the dead’
The Hungry Ghost is a children’s/middle-grade story set in Singapore, and is a story of adventure and ghosts, of family and relationships, of remembering and forgetting, of the past and the present—a story which was absorbing throughout and which turned out to be much deeper than I’d expected.
In the book we met Freja, a young girl, who arrives in Singapore to live with her dad, step-mom Clementine, and half-brothers—twins, Billie and Eddie—while her mum undergoes treatment back in Denmark. While Clementine and Freja’s dad try to make everything comfortable for her, she understandably resists, not wanting to end-up ‘liking’ Clementine. The fact that the family are living in much better circumstances than she does with her mum (larger house, live-in domestic-help, a woman from the Philippines named Maya, and buy her many of the things she’s been asking for at home) somehow makes her more reluctant.
On her very first evening there, Freja notices a mysterious girl in a white dress, with long black hair trying to speak to her father out in the garden. Curious, she follows the girl when she notices her again the next day, ending up in a Chinese Cemetery, Bukit Brown. Freja soon finds that the time she has arrived in Singapore is that of the Hungry Ghost festival when offerings are made to ancestors and ghosts and spirits roam free. The girl in white, who she finds out is called Ling, has a family mystery of her own which Freya must help solve, and which must be done by the end of the month. But solving this mystery is no easy task and takes Freja to places she’d have hardly even imagined existed.
Meanwhile, alongside Freja starts at her new school and meets people who come from very mixed and different backgrounds. Families and friends for them too come in different moulds—not always conventional. Despite all the warmth and friendliness around, Freja finds it difficult to adapt to the family and school, and we sense that there is something that is worrying her for she is always preparing for danger, trouble, survival! But what could that be?
This was a really engrossing read right from the start and had me invested both in the storyline and characters (though I must say I didn’t entirely take to Freja, even though I realised there’d be an explanation for why she was as she was). But I definitely wanted to find out more about Ling and also Freja’s own story, and both girls’ stories did turn out interesting, but a little heart-breaking as well.
The setting in terms of both the place—Singapore—and its cultural elements—including folklore and the background of the Hungry Ghost festival are excellently incorporated in the story, and one learns about ghosts (including the vampire ghost or Pontianak) and offerings, mythical creatures like dragons, tigers and turtles, and also legendary figures like the Monkey King/Sun Wukong. Other cultural elements like Feng Shui which not only plays a role in day to day life but is also the basis for the city-state’s design are also woven into the story. Also, the blend of cultures that is Singapore stands out really well—as we meet people from different heritages and cultures represented in the different schoolmates Freja meets and befriends, including a neighbour’s grandson, Jason (There is also the food from different cultures—chicken rice to roti pratha and dosa—which are part of everyday life, and nature—monkeys, monitor lizards, and banyan trees among them). Freja is of course ignorant of most of these cultural elements (including how elders are addressed) and must find out as the story goes on.
The spooky, eerie elements of the story are also done very well, and one definitely feels a chill or a creepy vibe when reading the book, especially when one enters the realm of the ghosts (and seeing things that Freja doesn’t seem to even when they seem obvious).
But beyond the actual adventure, the mystery that Freja has to solve, and the ghostly elements, this is also a story about family and relationships. Freja is caught between a family where she feels like an outsider, and whom she feels reluctant to accept even when she wants to, and the love she feels for her mother back home. With the new friends she makes at school, though she likes them, she has to get over barriers of her own making before she can truly accept them as part of her life. The meeting with Ling and helping her with her mystery ends up helping her with her own issues as well. These elements brought a complexity to the story. I also thought that Freja ‘s responses in these situations, and her lashing out in a way, pushing everything and everyone away was done well and believably even though I didn’t much like her reactions.
This was a great read in terms of the story, setting and themes, and one that can also be enjoyed by adults (for the intended audience, I thought may be some of the themes might be a little dark).