Ed Lin’s Ghost Month is the most setting-heavy book I’ve read in years.
The first third of the book describes Taipei’s night market and the surrounding areas. A night market owner, Jing-nan, learns of his girlfriend’s murder.
Jing-nan and his girlfriend had an agreement. They would both go to prominent colleges in America, get their degrees, and then marry when they were well off. Until then, they would not contact each other.
Both of them seemed to have failed. Jing-nan’s parents died so Jing-nan had to return from the U.S. to take over the family food stand in the night market. Jing-nan’s girlfriend ended up working as a Betel nut beauty, a prostitute, in another section of Taiwan.
As in other countries, prostitution is mostly run by organized crime. Taiwan has at least three levels of organized crime--local thugs who run neighborhoods, the larger Black Sea group and its offshoots, and foreign elements including the CIA.
All along, it is Ghost Month, the month when the gates of the underworld open and the dead roam the streets. People put out food and light candles for the ghosts. They go to the temple (an open courtyard with statues of goddesses and gods) to burn money so the ghosts will have money for the things they need.
And Jing-nan fixates on his favorite band Joy Division.
I had never heard of Joy Division. I Goggled it, listened to some of the music, and learned they were a post-punk band. One major member suffered epileptic seizures during sets. They made few albums before that man committed suicide and the band continued under another name.
I felt unqualified to read this book. It dealt in such detail with a foreign place and a different way of thinking. The music was out of my realm. Some of the actions seemed unreal to me, though they might have been real in that setting.
Jing-nan receives a message written in lemon juice, the old childhood gimmick of invisible writing which shows under heat. He sends his new girlfriend into a very dangerous situation to find what happened to his old girl friend. And the story goes from there.
The book also has a religious element. Jing-nan does not believe in ghosts and the temple culture which surrounds them, but by the end of the book he becomes more tolerant. He says, “Was it really so wrong to have temples and superstitions, if, in the end, they allowed people to find some inner peace in this horrible world?”
At another point, he said, “I came to an understanding in Longshan Temple, Nancy. We’re all human. We break promises and screw up our lives, sometimes by design and sometimes through circumstances. It’s a good thing that we can find some comfort in goddesses and rituals.”
So what did I think of the book? I found it hard reading, too much setting. But once I got into the story, I kept moving on. I don’t think I’ve read any book that gives a better sense of setting and place. The place and culture inform every action in Ghost Month. Its cultural authenticity may be the best thing about Ghost Month.