Family, Fear and Friendship
Hanna Alkaf’s The Girl and the Ghost is an unapologetic Malaysian story with memorable characters, thought-provoking concepts, flawless writing and intertwining of culture.
When an old witch dies, her pelesit—a dark spirit or ghost (the Malay word hantu is used interchangeably for both), usually commanded by a woman, that can transform into a grasshopper—is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya. Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected. As an adventurous girl, the pelesit keeps the small girl safe but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older. When he reveals himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.
Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides her company as she receives very little from her mother, and has no friends. Suraya did not know her grandmother, while Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel, and vindictive she was. As an evil being with no heart, these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died. With Suraya, however, he feels things. He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she does not have things the other kids have.
Friendship with strained family relationships is a strong theme. An entertaining convergence of the supernatural with touches of contemporary Malaysian life enriches the background: ethnic and religious diversity, layers of rapid social change, and loving descriptions of food.
The author’s middle-grade debut immerses readers in Malaysian culture and food as well as weaving in both Islamic elements and pre-Islamic views of ghosts and death. Though the aspects of the novel embrace the disturbing and grotesque elements (which might delight many readers), its conclusion is grippingly heart-wrenching and speaks to deeper themes of family, trauma, and friendship. Suraya and her family are Malay Muslims while Jing Wei is Chinese Malaysian.
On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous. He harms Jing, and Suraya decides that she no longer wants him to be her master. As a result, Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable. As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mother about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya. Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.
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Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.
Suraya as a character is bookish, kind, and non-confrontational. She is the very definition of a good girl, “one who does as she’s told… who doesn’t like to make trouble for other people”, taunts the pawang at one point.
But as it becomes clear, it isn’t that she’s afraid to fight, but that she’s the one who chooses her battles—when it comes down to it, she will face demons to protect someone she loves.
Suraya does not want to see people hurt, even her enemies, to exact revenge and relish in it. But there’s a lot of light as well. The precious gift of friendship is a key thread that runs through the novel. Jing Wei is the very portrait of a true friend, a Samwise Gamgee-type to Suraya’s Frodo Baggins who jumps with both feet in, come what may.
Pink, with a twitch of his antenna, can make things happen. Bad things. Things that might at first seem ordinary and Suraya tries hard not to let these things bother her but when she catches on, she gets a peek into the dark side of Pink.
Although she makes Pink promise never to use his magic to hurt people, Pink reluctantly agrees but can’t keep his promise for long.
The cover is beautiful and whimsical, with just the right hint of darkness looming. Pay special attention to Suraya’s outfit—it’s a traditional Malay outfit called baju kurung.
This is not a typical middle-grade tale. This is not a Casper The Friendly Ghost sort of story but fans of Holly Black’s Doll Bones and Tahereh Mafi’s Furthermore series will love this ghostly middle-grade debut that explores jealousy, love, and the extraordinary power of friendship.
This book is scary and dark and with psychological twists. It features spirits and ghosts who are not always good. There is an evil man, a wicked witch grandmother, and a cold emotionally detached mother. There are bullies and monstrous creatures, and there is loneliness, sadness, and loss.
Despite all of these dark, and sometimes outright scary things, there is a beautiful lesson about real friendship; being true to oneself, having courage in the face of fear, the importance of family, and letting go to move on.
An intense tale of grief, family, friendship, and forgiveness. There is a tenacity of hope, bravery in the face of fear, and love in action. A novel about the many ways people can be haunted, and the transformative power of friendship and love.
Hanna Alkaf writes unapologetic Malaysian stories. The book is based on a Malaysian folktale. How much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought-provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural—a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.
(This Review was published in the April 2021 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)
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Muhammad Nadeem is a reader and writes about what he reads. Among his writings are reviews, poetry, and short stories. He also works with translation and criticism, and has previously been published in Prachya Review, Cafe Dissensus Magazine, Kashmir Lit, Sheeraza, Inverse Journal, AGNI, Poet Lore, 32 Poems, Jaggery Lit among other literary magazines and journals. His poems have been translated and published in several anthologies. His reading interests are diverse, and he has reviewed hundreds of books for literary publications. He is also a former editor of the Mountain Ink.