Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a skinny little novel (scarcely more than a novella) that has taken me almost seventeen (!!!!) years to read. If I hadn’t decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, in fact, it might have languished on the shelf for another decade, or never have been read at all, which would be a shame. For all its brevity, Greenway’s beautifully written novel packs quite a punch. Despite my great delay in getting to it (I always meant to read it!) I am happy to have selected it as my first 2019 TBR Challenge read!
Greenway’s novel could be categorized in a number of equally accurate ways. Ghost Girls is a debut novel and, like many such, is also a coming of age tale. Most reviewers stopped there. In my mind, however, this tale of an expatriate American family living in Hong Kong also falls into the “innocent Americans abroad in a dangerous world” category, a variation on the well-beloved 19th century trope of naive Americans entrapped by an older & exotic culture. On a very mundane level, Ghost Girls also concerns a dysfunctional family (dysfunctional family novels are one of my favorite literary sub-genres). Its Hong Kong setting, described in lovely, lyrical prose, also places the novel in that group of books that you might pick up for an afternoon’s mini-vacation in an exotic locale. The novel is also a study, brief but concentrated, of loss and memory. Finally, although I don’t think Greenway intended it as such, her novel is a bit of a period piece. Its action takes place in 1967, when America’s adventure in Vietnam was at its tragic height and Mao’s Red Guards are fomenting unrest in Hong Kong in a process that will eventually see the end of British rule over the crown colony. Both these political events determine the lives of Greenway’s characters and her depiction of them adds a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere.
It is the summer of 1967 and the news is filled with images of the war that is raging in southeast Asia. The family’s father is a photographer for Time Magazine, assigned to cover the war. While he works on assignment in Vietnam, his wife Marianne and his two daughters, Frankie and Kate, live in Hong Kong where they await his occasional visits from the war zone. It’s one of the novel’s ironies that Hong Kong, chosen as a safe refuge from war, is itself descending into intense street violence brought about by clashes between police and communist demonstrators. During her husband’s absence Marianne uses the charms and comforts of the colony’s British elite (Sunday luncheon, anyone, or perhaps tea?) to barricade herself against the violence and her fear; an artist, she also immerses herself in painting charming water colors of an idyllic, imaginary China that never existed. Twelve year old Kate and her older sister Frankie are left largely to Ah Bing, the family’s Chinese nanny and house keeper; they are her gwaimui, or white ghost girls (on occasion, she also refers to them as houh hoi, or “little whores.” Marianne is oblivious.) The combination of an unreachable mother, and a father becoming increasingly addicted to the lure of Vietnam and the adrenaline of war, mean the two girls essentially navigate adolescence and the street dangers created by political turmoil on their own.
The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of the adult Kate, who is remembering the events of her family’s last summer together. It is clear from the opening page that something terrible will happen to Frankie; the novel’s suspense lies in learning the precise form the catastrophe will assume and how it will occur. As with any first person account, the reader has to judge for herself the reliability of the narrator, a point that Kate herself raises rather obliquely midway through the novel. Greenway uses beautiful, lyrical prose to contrast the innocence of late childhood with the growing menace surrounding Kate and Frankie. When the act occurs that sets in motion the novel’s horrifying climax, we see it as twelve year old Kate sees it, half comprehending, half not.
Greenway is particularly good at family dynamics. Kate and Frankie are studies in contrasts. Frankie is voluptuous and rebellious; as the older sister she is bigger, stronger and faster; she is also more emotionally needy and feels she must come first in any situation. Kate is younger; more boyish; quieter and observant; it is Kate who sees the fractures in the family’s relationships and feels responsible for mending them. Despite their differences, the sisters have a close relationship but one that begins to fray over the course of that fateful summer. Although it is hardly the dominant strain in the novel, Greenway skillfully depicts the struggle each girl wages with the other and with their mother for the father’s attention on the rare occasions when he is physically with his family.
A note about the artwork, for the visually minded out there. The artist is George Chinnery, who was active in the second quarter of the 19th century and spent much of his life along what was then called the “China Coast.” Chinnery, a contemporary of the far more famous J.M.W. Turner, was the only western painter resident in south China during this period. Because Chinnery spent only a limited amount of time in Hong Kong itself, the painting actually portrays a panoramic view of Macau, at the time a more important city located about 40 miles to the southwest. At one point in the novel, Kate attempts to understand her emotionally aloof and distant mother by examining her mother’s art. Kate describes her mother’s paintings as “nostalgic, suggestive” of a nineteenth century Hong Kong, similar to “the playful sketches of George Chinnery’s depictions” of “the faded charm of nearby Macau.” While I may have cheated a bit by using a 19th century painting of Macau to illustrate a 20th century novel set in Hong Kong, Greenway gives me some support for doing so!
Although I wasn’t quite as taken with this novel as many reviewers (I think it was long-listed for the Orange Prize, or some such) it was definitely worth reading on both stylistic and substantive grounds. I’d especially recommend it for readers who enjoy beautiful lyrical language, atmosphere and exotic settings in their novels.