Like many children, I grew up scared of ghosts. I imagined their bodies hovering above my bed while I slept or looked away, their faces translucent and menacing.
But the more I grew up, the more I realised this made no sense. Ghosts are the soul of the deceased: why would I be their foe? And even more so, surely those who cared enough to visit me would be loving spirits.
My novel Wandering Souls follows three siblings, Anh Minh and Thanh, who leave Vietnam after the war and settle in Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom, at a time of political and societal upheaval.
Central to the novel is the Vietnamese belief that deceased people not given a proper burial in their homeland are unable to find peace and are instead left to wander for eternity as ghosts. One of the narrators in Wandering Souls is Dao, the little brother of Anh, Minh and Thanh, who perished at sea alongside his parents and three other siblings. He looks on from a place in-between the living and the dead, homesick for a place to belong.
Below are some other novels that include ghosts as narrators, showing the wide-ranging ways in which they are represented and perceived:
Hotel World by Ali Smith
Divided into five chapters, Hotel World is centered around the death of Sara, a 19-year-old chambermaid who meets her end during a freak accident at the Global Hotel. Each chapter is narrated by a different woman, somehow linked to the event and each representing a different stage of grief. These include Sara’s sister Clare, the hotel’s depressed receptionist Lise and, of course, Sara herself, who delivers a stream-of-consciousness monologue as she transitions from living to dead. Smith manages to add light-heartedness to an otherwise tragic tale, and the result is a fast-paced, lyrical read.
Human Acts by Han Kang
Like Hotel World, Human Acts is also told through a series of interconnected chapters and voices. The novel deals with the aftermath of a violent student uprising in South Korea in the 1980s. Its second chapter is narrated by Jeong-Dae, a young boy killed during the protests. His soul is still attached to his decaying body, piled up amongst other corpses in a military truck. Both frightening and gut-wrenching, the narration is effective at showing us the cruel horrors which emanated from the uprising.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Winner of the 2017 Booker Prize, Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel unlike any I’d read before. Unfolding over the course of a single night, it deals with the death of William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son. As his father visits his grave, Willie finds himself in the Bardo—a transitional space in-between life and death. We hear from a symphony of ghostly voices, other souls trapped in the Bardo, as various forces vie for the young boy’s soul while his grief-stricken father refuses to let go.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar
Originally written in Farsi, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is set in Iran right after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a thirteen-year-old girl who was burned to death in a cellar. Through her eyes, we follow her family as they are forced to flee Tehran and move to the ancient forests of Mazandaran in northern Iran. We witness the grief-stricken family as they try to make new lives for themselves while caught in the tumultuous, violent midst of post-Revolution Iran. Inspired by Persian folklore, this is a powerful, lyrical work of magical realism.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Set in post-civil war America, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman unable to let go of her traumatic days at Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved. She is also haunted by the death of her firstborn, nameless child, whose tombstone is etched by a single word: “Beloved”. One day, she comes home from a Carnival alongside her daughter Sethe and Paul D, a fellow enslaved man at Sweet Home. Waiting for them on their porch is a young woman, who calls herself Beloved. Beloved narrates chapter 22 in a fragmented, haunting stream-of-consciousness monologue which delves into her past. A bewitching and frightening figure, she is a mysterious character. She is hinted to be the ghost of Sethe’s firstborn child—and a representative of all of the victims of slavery.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the National Book Award-winning, intimate portrait of three generations of a family living in rural Mississippi, with some of its members gifted the ability to communicate with ghosts. The story is told through three narrators: thirteen-year-old Jojo, his absent and troubled mother Leonie, and Richie, an imprisoned man who died in horrific circumstances. As he struggles to accept his death, we follow him as he seeks answers that might bring him peace—and enable him to transition to the afterlife.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
Winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Almeida is set in Colombo during the Sri Lankan civil war. The narrator Maali Almeida is a war photographer, gambler, and closeted gay man, who is brutally murdered. In the afterlife, he is given seven days (or “seven moons”) to travel between the afterlife and the real world to try and retrieve a series of photos that will expose the brutalities of the Civil War. Gut-wrenching but also filled with humor, this novel shrewdly explores Sri Lanka’s troubled past.
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