Anne Berry's The Hungry Ghosts is a stunning debut, brilliant in the seamless intricacy of a story that plays out over a 60-year period, beginning with the brutal Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Epic in scope and voice, the book moves from British Hong Kong to England and Paris, returning to post-colonial Hong Kong, now a part of the People's Republic of China.
This book is so skillfully crafted, and the writing so elegant, it's hard to believe it is a first novel. Some years ago, critic Noah Richler railed against young new writers emerging from creative writing programs, the product of too many writing workshops and not enough real-life experience. Anne Berry is his dream. Berry, 54, was born in Hong Kong to a former key figure in the colonial government. She ran an acting school and wrote plays, in addition to working as a speech therapist and a reporter. Now living in England, Berry writes full time and has already finished a second novel. Her diverse background and experience are perhaps the perfect companions to the talent and insight that have created this page-turning book.
The story centres on two characters, 12-year-old Alice Safford, the eccentric third daughter of a high-ranking official in the British colonial government in Hong Kong, and the restless spirit of Lin Shui, a young girl raped and murdered by a Japanese solider in 1942. Lin Shui lingers in a netherworld between the living and the dead, haunting a morgue in an abandoned British army hospital.
When the hospital is reborn as a private school for the children of colonial officials, Lin Shui attaches herself to young Alice, a deeply troubled child existing in the quintessential English colonial world of stiff upper lips, carefully controlled façades and undercurrents of deceit and betrayal.
Lin Shui feeds off Alice's emotional agony. The haunting is both parasitic and protective as Lin Shui uses Alice to provoke her family, but also attempts to protect her. With Chinese spirituality and mythology woven throughout, the drama of the Safford family unfolds against the spectacular tapestry of colonial unrest and upheaval, and the dramatic and breathtaking geography of Hong Kong.
The book is an intriguing combination of the supernatural, domestic drama and colonial politics, bringing to mind both the work of both E.M. Forster and Sarah Waters. "Deft" is often an overused word in reviews, but alas, it is perfect to describe the skill with which Berry writes. Her characters are often drawn in one line: "There will be another party with mother glittering like a dragonfly, and darting from one guest to another in a wave of perfume." And the caregiver of an elderly relative: "But once set in motion, I am like an ocean liner: it takes considerable effort to stop me."
The story is never presented from the perspective of Alice; rather, Alice is shown from myriad perspectives, most intimately from that of the young phantom she hosts. The narrative structure embodies the spirit of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, tracing back and forth across time, moving the reader through the story like a phantom. Book-ended with the voice of Lin Shui, her view is the thread through time and place that binds the book together.
Alice is the hapless victim of an emotionally desiccated mother and absent father, a child finding brief companionship with her fat little brother and beloved dog until both are taken from her, then making do with a motley crew of spectres. Through a series of dark turns, Alice eventually disappears, reappearing 30 years later and bringing with her the past that her family had been sure was behind them.
Ghosts serve as the central metaphor in this book, representing the troubled past that lingers: Guilt, regret and remorse swirling through life, ensnaring the present in yesterday, departing only with that elusive act of conciliation. Ghosts are also a symbol for the era of colonialism, former colonists becoming phantoms of another time, exiled from a place they cannot return to, sent back to the motherland where they linger, faded reminders of a tainted past, stranded in the darkened hallways of history: the British withdrawal from Africa and Asia, the French evicted from Indochina, the pied-noir from colonial Algeria.
Anne Berry has written a gorgeous and, at times, harsh book that shows the symbiotic relationship between broad global events and the small personal agonies that embody them.
Christy Ann Conlin's forthcoming second novel, Listening for the Island, is a ghost story (of sorts).