Review: The Hungry Ghost, by H.S. Norup

With this novel, we’re in Singapore in July, the season of the hungry ghost: a time of remembrance, burnt offerings, and maybe a little danger. It may not, in fact, be the best idea for young Freja to follow the girl in white who appears in her father’s garden, and who runs so quickly and silently to the wild grove a few streets away: a wild grove that turns out to be Bukit Brown, a vast, disused and overgrown cemetery.

But Freja has no desire to stay at home in safety with her stepmother, Clementine, who seems to do nothing all day but post on social media. Freja misses her Dad, always on another business trip, and her Mum, in therapy back in Denmark, and she has an inclination toward wild places and dangerous adventures. Perhaps her adventure with the hungry ghost will turn out to be dangerous – it could even be frightening – but all the same, perhaps it’s not actually a bad idea. Perhaps it will even turn out to be essential.

Ghost stories have been essential for me, at least, ever since I was nine, and enjoyed a shivery summer reading The Magnet Book of Strange Tales. I can’t help feeling that there’s something of a resonance between that genre and children’s fiction: I suppose, to some extent, both of them bracket life, the start and the finish. Children’s fantasy often tells stories, like the conventional ghost story, using the rulebooks of ancient cultures and customs, as if the modern way of living was just rushed bit of improvisation, which the next generation are free to discard where appropriate. Watch closely, they both say, there is something else going on behind the scenes that even adult authority can’t control; and yet however bad it gets, both kinds of writing generally agree that where there’s life, there’s hope.

Ghost stories, too, are often about unfinished business, and that’s what children have always had to deal with: the unfinished stories of those who preceded them. (How often are child protagonists trying to sympathise with, or make reparations on behalf of the dead?) The eponymous hungry ghost, in South Asian lore, isn’t craving something creepy: they want remembrance or atonement. But what does this one need? It takes a lot of experimentation from Freja to find out, and others repeatedly warn her she’s doing it wrong: whether mystically or in terms of real, physical danger, she gets close to death more than once in the novel. There’s a threatening mood for much of H.S. Norup’s novel, enhanced by claustrophobic cloudy skies and rainy nights.

An image of Bukit Brown, by David Pierson for the LA Times

The rich, authentic folkloric encounters she experiences – even a realm of mystic balance, beyond space and time – make The Hungry Ghost sometimes feel like a cousin of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the difference being, there’s no universal enemy to overcome here, and no inheritance of wise wizards to belong to. Her quest is her own, albeit made on the behalf of another. Why has it fallen to Freja, so far from home, to unpick the mystery? At times, the novel is like a cultural initiation for this ‘ang mo’, the European child crossing boundaries in many senses (and wonderfully, the novel is full of people whose cultural backgrounds are complex and multiple – this is a truly international novel).

This isn’t a spooky tale dressed up in an othered culture: it’s rooted in that context, and its lore of Hell Gods, pontianaks and unhappy spirits are shown as enduringly relevant to the living. It strikes a clear emotional note throughout, and its final chapters, as the last pieces of mystery unlock, are delicately handled portraits of grief. (There is one potentially upsetting moment that means I would only recommend this to ten-year-olds at the youngest, although of course it always depends on the reader.) This is one novel that gives the lie to any claim that ‘issues novels’ and ‘novels of the imagination’ are in any kind of hierarchy, or even a binary: the wide-open terrain of the children’s novel allows ‘issues’ to be explored with whatever storytelling device is most effective, and most powerful.

Freja’s difficult relationship with her parents and guardians is initially background to her adventure with ghosts, becoming another element in the drama – how can she keep her cemetery visits secret from them…? In the conclusion of the novel, though, we see that this hasn’t just been about our responsibility to the dead, but to the living as well: to see each other fully, to speak openly, and to look out for one another. Atmospheric, eerie and read-past-bedtime gripping, what ultimately makes Norup’s novel so good is its attention to the human world. Nothing is incidental to its story, from the scary ghosts to the helpful new friend; in fact, as the story makes clear, the more we try to leave out a bit of the story, the more it haunts us. Hungry ghosts everywhere will agree on this.

You can order The Hungry Ghost, published by Pushkin Children’s, from Waterstones here, or support your local independent bookshop. I’d also like to recommend a novel I loved last summer, but didn’t have the energy to write about at the time: When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Brahmachari, another children’s ghost story of sorts, but not at all scary, and this time driven by an amazing, politically charged story about migrant experience and disinheritance.