A charming, funny graphic novel

A review of Ghost Book by Remy Lai. Picture: ON FILE

By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

Winner of the 2024 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – Prize for Children’s Literature, Ghost Book, by Brisbane-based author and illustrator Remy Lai, is a heart-warning graphic novel for children aged 9 and above.

The book’s protagonist is July, a 12-year-old girl who is seldom noticed by her schoolmates.

With her mother having died in childbirth and her father busy selling dumplings everyday, July often feels ignored – by both the living and the dead, as those ghosts around her don’t realise she can see them.

It’s the Hungry Ghost Month, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when the Gates of the Underworld open and dangerous ghosts get to roam the living world.

When July saves a boy ghost named William from being devoured by a Hungry Ghost, he becomes her first and only friend.

Together, they try to return William’s wandering spirit to his body.

Their adventures reflect many aspects of East and Southeast Asian folklore, starting with the Hungry Ghosts, which are believed to be the spirits of those who have died tragic deaths, those who aren’t receiving offerings from their living families, and those who are punished for the terrible things they did while alive.

The story further brings various mythical figures to life, including Oxhead and Horseface, whose job is to escort new ghosts to the Underworld. Meanwhile, the character Heibai Wuchang combines two deities – the Black and White Impermanence – who keep the Underworld in order.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Grandma Meng (or Meng Po), who serves the Forgetting Soup (or the Soup of Oblivion) at the Bridge at the End (or the Bridge of Oblivion).

Like the water of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology, the soup ensures that souls who are ready to be reincarnated do not remember their previous life or their time in the Underworld.

These traditional cultural elements enrich the plot, shedding light on universal themes such as friendship, family, grief, loss and loyalty.

The funny, full-colour illustrations and witty dialogues are uplifting, easing the tension that some young readers may feel while pondering the complex issues of life, death, separation, loneliness and fear.

The portrayal of the Underworld may bring back memories of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and Lee Unkrich’s Coco (2017), where bright, festive colours are used to capture the audience’s imagination.

Also curious are the “people” in the Underworld, creative combinations of animals and humans that remind readers of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963).

While a handful of ghosts are spooky, the overall visual effect is delightful and fun. To this reviewer, the handful of Chinese characters used in the book are full of meaning, such as the subtle difference between “dumplings” (yummy) and “wonky dumplings” (“eat some and your problems – and you – will be forgotten”).

But the most fascinating character is “forget”, which combines “perish” and “heart”. Luckily, as Ghost Book shows us: “A broken heart is a heart that has loved and been loved.” Highly recommended.