I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
The Hungry Ghost by H S Norup, cover art by Anna Morrison
I read HS Norup’s first book, The Missing Barbegazi, back in December 2018 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was thrilled so see something new from her.
Set in Singapore during ‘The Hungry Ghost’ month, this couldn’t have sounded more different to the snowy ski slopes of The Missing Barbegazi!
But contained within both books are intriguing mysteries, with each showing the importance of friendship, family and history, and with each having a fantastic sense of place and culture.
This, is unsurprising as Helle puts a great deal of her own personal experience and research into the books; she knows the places she writes and is therefore able to transport us there along with her.
Here, we are taken to Singapore as Freja is suddenly taken to live there with her Dad, stepmum and half brothers. It’s apparent immediately what a culture shock this is with everything very different to her life in Denmark.
Homesick, worried about her mum, upset at her dad’s absence as he spends so much time at work and finding it hard to reconcile her loyalty to her mum with the fact that her stepmum, Clementine, is actually quite nice, Freja seeks comfort in exploring her new surroundings.
She’s an outdoor girl through and through, balking at the pretty dresses Clementine has bought her and taking her trusty Swiss army knife and compass everywhere, so when she follows a mysterious girl out of the garden and into an overgrown and disused graveyard in the lush rainforest nearby she’s thrilled at the adventure and relieved at the escape.
But who is this girl, where has she come from and how is she connected to Hungry Ghost month being celebrated by locals?
I love the way we found out about The Hungry Ghost celebrations throughout the course of the book. Rather than an awkward and obtrusive information dump, we see more and more about it as Freja sees local offerings, takes a trip to Chinatown, ends up at one of the ‘getai’ celebrations and speaks to new friends and locals. I felt, like Freja, that I was gradually becoming part of the celebrations and really enjoyed finding out about them in this way, especially as it wasn’t something I knew about previously.
Likewise, I really liked the way the ideas of honouring and remembering the dead linked into Freja’s own family and story later on in the book.
And I liked how, as Freja began to solve the mystery of Ling’s past, we began to see a mystery of her own coming to the surface alongside it. I thought the way the two stories interwove, and the way the pieces to Freja’s story fell into place and subtly came to the forefront was so clever and made it all the more moving.
The use of mythology to unravel both stories added a touch of fantasy which complemented the ghostly celebrations and was another dip into Chinese culture in itself.
There was a really careful balance struck here which was so well done – firmly rooted in real life and dealing with issues of family, friendship and loss, the book manages to use ghosts, mythology and folklore without tipping over completely into fantasy.
Family is dealt with so well in the book – we see a range of situations, both past and present, which help Freja to make sense of the changes to her own family life.
And death and loss are addressed sensitively too, as we consider them as opportunities to celebrate rather than mourn; lives to remember rather than deaths to grieve, whilst still acknowledging the sadness they bring and the necessity of the grieving process.
This is a wonderful book, rich in its setting – my senses came alive in that graveyard and when passing through the Banyan tree and the descriptions of the natural world were so vivid – and full of Chinese culture and Singaporian ways of life.
A gradually unravelling, slightly supernatural mystery, with family, friendship and positivity at its heart, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and compelling adventure and a cleverly, sensitively told tale of dealing with loss too. Perfect for fans of Emma Carroll or A M Howell and highly recommended!