It is the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar and in Singapore, The Hungry Ghost Festival is under way, a time when the gates to the underworld are flung open and the dead roam freely among us. In this new novel from the wonderfully globetrotting Pushkin Press, we’re transported there, along with troubled Danish schoolgirl, Freja. A reluctant new arrival into her dad’s second family, Freja is struggling to belong. She is far from being the only uneasy soul in The Hungry Ghost by H.S. Norup, an evocative exploration of family, memory and the nature of grief.
Freja tells us little of her previous life in Denmark and we’re left with snapshots of a fractured family and a weeping mother. Her remarried father, initially so welcoming, appears distracted by work, and something else, strange restless dreams that are intensified by the heavy, humid atmosphere.
In this time of wandering spirits, we sense that Freja’s fragile psyche is open to the possibility of ghostly communion and it duly arrives, in the shadowy form of Ling, a long-dead young girl. Seemingly unloved and forgotten, Ling has lost all memory of her previous life. Maybe Freja can help her reclaim her past and in the process lay more than one ghost to rest.
This book is such a feast for the senses. I absolutely loved Norup’s vivid depiction of Singapore, with its humming cicadas and riotous colours, the heady scent of frangipani, and muggy air ‘…like a heavy duvet pressing down on me.’
The girls’ mission will take them via a disused cemetery and magical banyan tree, into the mythical realm of the Chinese dragon. A dedicated Scout, Freja is physically fearless, but does she have the courage to confront her inner demons? The salvation of her own memories may be just as important as Ling’s.
A spine-tingling and gorgeous read.
The Hungry Ghost by H.S. Norup is published by Pushkin Children’s Books, 256 pages.