The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

TGATGWhat a gorgeous story. The premise, the telling, the characters: I liked most everything about it. I’d been a little wary because someone had mentioned that it’s about a pelesit who becomes the friend of a little girl. I was wary because pelesit are Malay familiar spirits that are used by their owners to possess victims and I didn’t particularly like the idea of such a creature being turned into a cute Disney-type character. However, my fears were pretty much unfounded. The friendship between the pelesit and the girl is framed in such a way that makes it plausible, natural and even necessary. Also, the spirit itself declares that it is ‘not a character from some childhood tale’, a meta moment that I hugely appreciated. TGATG is a childhood tale, but of course it’s not that kind of childhood tale, the sort that sanitizes the heck out of our stories, wringing out all but their most attractively exotic commercially viable cultural details.

TGATG doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Malay culture, the side that includes non-Islamic, animist beliefs. The pelesit, from its physical form (a grasshopper or cricket) to its diet of blood is very much a thing of nature. It’s a creature of elemental magic made to serve through a blood pact.

The girl, Suraya, inherits the pelesit from her grandmother when the old lady dies. The grandmother was a witch and used the pelesit to make mischief for her clients. In TGATG the pelesit is a magical creature who can be tasked to do all kinds of stuff, not just possess people. When Suraya inherits it, she is only a toddler. Her mother does not inherit because she and the witch were estranged. The pelesit shows itself to Suraya when she is five and the spirit is named Pink. Given her mother’s scepticism and dislike for ‘magic and fairy tales and other whimsical nonsense’, the child’s lack of alarm at being confronted by a ‘dark spirit’ in all its ‘horned and scaled’ ‘horrifying glory’ is entirely plausible. At the same time, I’m not so sure if any child would be as unfazed as she is. On one hand, it’s not realistic, but on the other, Hanna Alkaf’s telling of the scene makes it believable and real. 

Similarly, Suraya is such a precocious child that I can’t imagine her existing in real life Malaysia. Nevertheless, she works. She’s adorable and I want her to be real, and she is, in the world the author has created. At this point, I need to say that some details in this book only worked for me when I ignored what I know as a Malaysian living in Malaysia. I’m not sure if it was deliberate but I feel that this story was written chiefly for non-Malaysians. The Malaysian setting and the supernatural elements and the snippets of the Malay language makes it special for Malaysians, but I feel some parts only make sense if you don’t know Malaysia and only if you imagine all Malaysians communicating in English. For example, as a Malaysian, I don’t buy the fact that the ghost of a young man in a Muslim cemetery in Kelantan would say things are ‘dead boring’ and then declare, gleefully, that he’s made a pun. But, if I were an American reader, I would probably just accept that a young Malay man living in a small town in Kelantan would make English language puns.  

Another instance of me having to put aside what I know as a Malaysian is when Suraya refers to Pink using the masculine pronoun and the medicine man (the pawang) corrects her, saying, ‘Surely you mean it, child.’ Again, this exchange would only take place if the conversation were in English as the Malay language does not have gendered pronouns. Now, I believe that most Malaysians wouldn’t think of a pawang speaking English. Someone is now going to come along and say that the pawang their great-aunt goes to prefers to communicate in English, but the thing is, if English was the language the pawang in this book preferred, it would definitely be something the average Malaysian would remark on (or even the non-average Malaysian, i.e. Suraya and her mother). However, a Western reader wouldn’t have an opinion about this, and the above exchange is important to the story because it underlines the fact that Suraya doesn’t see the pelesit as a thing, but a person. So, for the purpose of this story, English must be the language in which the pawang speaks. Of course, the exchange could have been written to take place between Suraya and someone she would be more likely to speak English with. As it is, I wouldn’t say it spoiled the book for me, but it did jolt me out of the story, albeit briefly.

What really bothered me was the narrator of the audio recording. As I don’t own a physical copy of TGATG, I had no choice but to listen to the audiobook on Scribd. One day I am going to write a post about various books that suffer from bad narration. The narrator of TGATG is Mirai Booth-Ong and I loved her portrayal of Suraya and Pink, and many of the other characters. For these characters she chose a neutral accent that is not jarring and allows the listener to focus on the story. Unfortunately, she abandons the neutrality for the novel’s Chinese characters. What’s worse is she puts on what she thinks is a Malaysian-Chinese accent and applies it to characters who are not even Malaysian-Chinese! Oh boy. 

But that isn’t on the author. The author, I feel, was successful in creating the world of the book. She was successful in creating characters who caught and held my interest. She was successful in describing the friendship between Suraya and Pink; and the friendship between Suraya and her classmate Jing. She was successful in portraying Suraya’s longing for tenderness from her mother, so successful that the little girl broke my heart; and she was successful in portraying the equally heartbreaking pain that lay beneath the surface of the mother’s emotional distance. I understood Pink’s anger and hurt; and I understood Suraya’s need for space and autonomy, her joy at finding a (human) friend, and her regret when faced with losing her spirit one.

I wouldn’t have written this story in quite the same way, but then this is not my story and I am not Hanna Alkaf. I write deliberately for Malaysians first, everyone else second, but that doesn’t have to be Hanna’s thing. This is a lovely book and I liked it. A lot. 

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