This novel is inhabited by ghosts. In a tale that begins in Shanghai in the 1920s-2000, a singular woman shares a history forged in grief, loss, hardship and war, from her youth in Shanghai to quieter days when most of her years have passed. When her father loses his job and can no longer support a family of four children, Ling travels with her father and twin brother, Li, in search of employment outside China to the Black Isle, an island on the Indonesian archipelago. Taking the oldest children with him and leaving the younger twin girls and wife behind, the former scholar promises to send money home.
Unfortunately, poverty is commonplace in their new environment, given the influx of like-minded immigrants. A position on a rubber plantation offers a temporary relief from the crowded tenements in the city, father and children soon ensconced in a jungle teeming with life and unfamiliar surroundings. Overwhelmed by his new obligations, their parent withdraws to his books and writing, forcing Ling and Li to assume the running the plantation and reluctant native workers. Though they were present in the city, Ling’s extraordinary communion with the dead manifests itself here most profoundly.
Ling’s remarkable facility is the essence of the novel, from a city crowded with the ghosts of the lonely dead to the more primitive encounters on the plantation, where spirits are animated by ancient beliefs and fears fueled by superstition. While whispers of war in the Pacific have yet to intrude upon the islanders’ daily lives, Ling discovers much about her powers and limitations at this time, aware as well of the sensations of an awakening body. Though her connection with Li is strengthened by their blood ties and natural sympathies, the ability to summon the dead inspires both opportunity and dread.
Through the mid-1930s to the eventual outbreak of war that reaches even the Black Isle, Ling reinvents herself as Cassandra. Returning to the city, she is hired by a wealthy family and begins a relationship that will both inflame and haunt her long life. The attack and occupation of Japan present new challenges for survival, yet another form of accommodation to survival that includes the enslavement of her senses. Cassandra’s every action is fraught with import: what is to be gained or lost, how actions keep her safe or endanger others, life and death often suspended in a moment. Thoroughly entwined with the spirit world and intimately conversant with the shame of her passions, Cassandra’s history is irrevocably entwined with that of the island, the ever-present ghosts protesting their misery and despair.
Save Daniel Wee, the idealistic young man she nearly marries as war breaks out, Cassandra never knows love without distortion or pain. Her otherworldly skills mark her as either prized or feared, dominated by powerful men yet untouchable in her otherness. The difficult war years, the island’s slow recovery, the British loss of control over the island and the Japanese occupation form the intricate tapestry of Cassandra’s life, burdened by the past and followed by the ghosts of lost souls. From the dark netherworld of the dead to the illumination of the subconscious, the novel reeks with life and death, writhes with discontented spirits and leaves an indelible mark though the weary eyes of Cassandra, a spirit woman.