The Girl and the Ghost
by Hanna Alkaf
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 4, 2020
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I received an ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The best thing about broadening your reading horizons is experiencing new perspectives, while at the same time discovering there are universal principles throughout many cultures. Hanna Alkaf's second novel, The Girl and the Ghost, comes out next month, August 4. It's a Middle-Grade fantasy. I'm nearly 70 so I'm obviously not in the target demographic, but I loved it. Once again set in Malaysia, where Alkaf lives, but now in contemporary times and utilizing native folklore. I don't want to go into much detail about the legends, so I encourage you to google these words: pelesit, bajang, langsuir, toyol, and polong. Those are mythological creatures that can embody evil spirits, which can be controlled by a witch, or pawang. However, I think it safe to say the spirits themselves are neither good or evil, it all depends on who is controlling them, or what lessons they learned from those who previously controlled them.
When we first meet Suraya she is four or five. She lives in a small village with her mother, a teacher. Her father had died when she was an infant, so she has no memory of him. She also knows nothing of any other family since her mother never speaks of them, is closed-off emotionally, hardly ever showing affection towards Suraya. One evening Suraya is visited by a pelesit (a ghost in the guise of a grasshopper), who bonds with her by nipping at a finger and drinking a bit of her blood. When it later tells Suraya that it is an inheritance from her grandmother, Suraya names him Pink, which is her favorite color. The pelesit doesn't like that name but has to accept it since Suraya is now its master. It takes several years before she realizes what that means. Pink accompanies Suraya wherever she goes, usually in one of her pockets, or resting on her shoulder to be close to her ear to talk to her. Suraya is somewhat like her mother, shy, not making friends easily, being bullied by other girls at her new school in the city. Even though they treat her badly, Suraya scolds Pink when she realizes he is behind several accidents that befall the other girls. Pink considers it his job to protect her, but relents when Suraya makes it clear she does not need him to protect her in that way. Things settle down for a while, until…
Suraya's life brightens when a Chinese girl moves to town and enrolls at her school. Jing becomes Suraya's first friend (after Pink that is). Jing's father had also died when she was young, so they have that in common, but otherwise their families are quite different. Suraya and her mother are poor, living in a small house on the edge of rice paddy fields. Jing lives in a large house, wears the nicest clothes, has all the latest gadgets, including an iPhone, and her mother drives a Mercedes. Suraya begins spending afternoons with Jing before taking the bus back to her village. Jing is surprised to learn Suraya has never seen any Star Wars movies ("I have all of them on Blu-Ray!"). Jing is fond of dropping Star Wars quotes into all her conversations, the significance of which Suraya eventually understands. But Pink is not happy with this new friendship, is jealous of Jing and longs for the times he and Suraya used to spend together. Pink manages to manipulate things in such a way that hurts both Jing and the other bullying girls. Instead of endearing himself to Suraya, it pushes her closer to Jing and away from Pink, whose jealous rage is then turned on Suraya.
Now Pink is the bully, which compells Suraya to confide in her mother, who surprisingly believes her. They consult with a pawang to capture the pelesit, which causes Suraya to have second thoughts, especially when she learns the pawang might want Pink for his own purposes, since he already has many other spirits under his control. That's when those other creatures I mentioned above come into play. Suraya and Pink reconcile, since she believes him when he says he is remorseful for his actions. Partnering with Jing they journey to another town which they believe to be where Suraya's grandmother last lived. They are in search of a grave of a young child which they believe her grandmother used to join its soul to Pink. Before, the story was fairly whimsical, even when some of Pink's actions were cruel. Now things really get dark and scary, not only because they encounter other ghosts, but the pawang and his minions are also on their trail.
I've said too much already, but the strengths of the story are not just in the plot, it's also in the emotions of the characters. As Suraya learns more about the world outside her village, she is able to better understand her mother, how and why they have been estranged, why her mother had been estranged from her family. The quote on the front cover says, "Only friendship can save you." That takes on several meanings, well beyond the friendship between Suraya and Jing. Due to his friendship with Suraya, Pink is able to unlearn behaviors learned from her grandmother, and she is able to become friends with her mother when she learns family history. Pink even becomes friends with Jing, and that in turn helped teach the pawang's other creatures they didn't have to continue following his orders. I've rated this 5 stars on Goodreads, although a more accurate score would be a bit less than that. If I'd criticize anything, it's that the exposition at the end could have been more concise, and I have to fault Jing for not using one of the most obvious Star Wars quotes in one instance. Otherwise, near perfect. Just because it's MG doesn't mean it's childish. Profound thoughts for anyone, no matter their age. Highly recommended.
Hanna Alkaf's Official Webpage
My review of her first novel, The Weight of Our Sky
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