Published: 2006 by Atlantic Books
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “And now I want to kill my father because he surrounds himself with so many people and adventures and stories that I will never reach him, never be able to tell him what happened to Frankie and me.”
Plenty gets written about the relationship between stage and screen: “the film based on the book, the book of the film” and so on. As far as I know White Ghost Girls does not have a film adaptation but this slim novel feels like a cinematic experience in its own right. Greenway’s short – sometimes fragmented – sentences erupt with colour and detail: “Red banners. Red flags. Little Red books of Mao Zedong’s edicts wave in the air.” Our narrator is Kate, a young American girl growing up in Hong Kong during the time of the Vietnam war. While her older sister Frankie rebels, revelling in curiosity, risk and her burgeoning sexuality, Kate remains quiet and watchful and, through the eyes of such an observant narrator, the readers become watchers too. This is both the great strength of White Ghost Girls and its weakness. When I finished this book it was wasn’t really Greenway’s plot or her characters that stayed with me, just a montage of some of her tremendously vivid imagery: intricate but static scenes rather like leafing through an old photograph album. This reaction may indicate that the novel’s plot is rather thin, which is certainly true, but more than that it emphasises the strikingly visual way in which Greenway writes.
The words “Vietnam” or “Chairman Mao” can unleash a flurry of moral and political debate, but while these sorts of questions do bubble away under the surface with gathering potency, what I enjoyed here was the different perspective on offer. Daily life continues even as epochs are made and unmade. Hong Kong’s privileged English speaking community cannot be unaffected by the violence and political unrest, but they strive to maintain an illusion of safety, detachment and above all, normality. The main consequence of war for Kate and Frankie is a desperate longing for their father, a war photographer who spends long periods away from home recording the conflict. While the danger of his job adds another level of anxiety, the girls’ clingy attempts to stave off their increasing sense of alienation from him are something that anyone growing up with busy or partially absent parents can relate to. Yet Kate’s elegiac story shows the damaging consequences of her parents’ well meaning attempts to shield her from the violence simmering around them. Unable to discuss or fully interpret the unsettling things she has seen, she retreats into herself, fear becoming another strand in the complex tangle of emotions and hormones in this haunting coming of age story.
White Ghost Girls is colourful novel of cultural clash: East and West, rich and poor, the violent and the mundane. Indeed through the unquestioning eyes of its juvenile narrator so quietly and fully are these different factors blended that story’s climax feels nowhere near as shocking as perhaps it should have done: sensitivity and numbness is another contrast to add to Greenway’s potent mix. More like a slide show than a novel, this fragmentary narrative will nonetheless immerse you in the fascinating, complex and troubling world of 1960s Hong Kong, a world of colour and conflict: temples, street markets, fishermen, swimming pool parties and revolutionaries. It’s a trip well worth taking.