The Hungry Ghost - H.S. Norup
Publishing 24th September 2020, Pushkin Press
This is a beautifully descriptive and emotional story, telling the tale of Freja and her journey of self- and re-discovery of family, history and friendship in the midst of difficult family circumstances.
Arriving in Singapore to spend time with her dad and step-mum whilst her mother in Denmark is 'ill', Freja starts the story with the line 'You can't see the stars in Singapore' and maintains a fairly negative attitude towards her situation throughout a healthy part of the book! Not happy with the circumstances of her relocation to Singapore, her dad's job demands, her relationship with her stepmum, the twin half-brothers that demand attention, and the worry over her mum, Freja is a girl under stress, and the difficulties she faces are skilfully and empathetically addressed throughout the book as she comes to terms with what is going on in her life, and more importantly, what has gone before.
The past is one of the key elements in this book (I don't want to give away any spoilers, so forgive my obtuseness!). Freja arrives in Singapore, and it's the 'month of the hungry ghost' with old spirits roaming the streets. Ling is the ghost that 'befriends' Freja, and together they unravel the secrets of both of their pasts, finding out that there is lots they have in common along the way on a magical and emotional journey of self-discovery for them both. The juxtaposition of Freja's investigation into Ling's past, alongside her own real-life discoveries about her feelings and the events that have led to her present situation were a really powerful and skillfully plotted element of this book for me.
A host of intiguing and engaging characters add colour, humour and interest to the story: from the tomboyish, Swiss-Army-knife-carrying Freja, through her 'evil' stepmother Clementine, to the friends she makes at her new school who get involved in her quest: this is a wonderful book. Also containing magical elements of Asian supernatural tales and ceremonies - elemental tigers, dragons and snakes all featuring as the Hungry Ghost Festival occurs alongside Freja's adventures, setting a deadline and pressuring her to solve the puzzles placed in front of her. Danger, magic, good and evil, as well as issues such as honesty, family, love and loss are all addressed through the experiences of Freja and Ling, and I loved seeing the powerful young female character lead struggling, but eventually overcoming, the challenges in both the spirit and real-world.
The locations of Singapore are evocatively described - the heat, the smells, the markets and the bustling city streets all conjuring up images that transported me there with Freja and her friends as they scour the city for clues. One of the most memorable locations is the Bukit Brown Cemetery, where Freja has been forbidden to explore (and so where of course, she goes!) and the swampy, overgrown, threat-filled danger of a graveyard at night, with hungry ghosts and their unclear intentions keep you on the edge of your seat as Freja searches for answers....
Answers are found (again, no spoilers!) and the book is emotionally concluded as Freja deals with what she has discovered - reading this with a class would need some sensitive thought around issues of loss and mental health, so be warned - read before sharing! The starting line of the book is echoed in the final one, as Freja summarises (in a now more positive way) with the hopeful message: '|I can't see the stars, but I know that they're there - an infinite number of lights in my expanding universe.'
This was a thrilling, exciting, thoughtful and moving story. It kept me gripped from start to end, desperate to find out more and have the secrets revealed. The glossary of terms for reference and the clever inclusion of elements such as historical events and morse-code messages also added a nice detective-story element to the reading. The author's notes at the end about the real-life elements as well as the link to the festivals and beliefs referred to throughout the book added authenticity to the locations and events taking place in the Singaporean setting.
Thank you to Poppy at Pushkin Press for the review copy in advance of the publication of the book on September 24th (https://www.pushkinpress.com/ and @).
H.S. Norup has a website with further details about the book (and pictures of the real-life Bukit Brown Cemetery!): https://www.hsnorup.com/the-hungry-ghost/ and can be followed on Twitter as @HSNorup
Review by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot) August 2020