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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ghost Month by Ed Lin

Soho Crime, 336 pages, $26.95

I love books that give readers a strong sense of place. Ed Lin has given his readers a Taiwan vivid with scents, tastes, and clashing politics and culture.

Taiwan, a large island off the coast of the People’s Republic of China, was the last stronghold of Chiang Kai-shek, who maintained that his party was the official ruling party of all China. However, the Communist Party was eventually accepted as the actual ruling party by all the major nations of the world. Taiwan, with its mix of Japanese, Chinese, and aboriginal cultures, is a roiling sea of people and religions. Jing-nan, Lin’s protagonist, explains, “We have twenty-three million people, the same population as Texas, packed on an island slightly bigger than Maryland.”

As a punk music-influenced teenager just starting off into manhood, Chen Jing-nan was avowedly atheistic and rebellious. His girlfriend, Zheng-lian, shared his beliefs. They were both smart and ambitious. The first step in their plan was to attend school in the U.S. Jing-nan became Johnny and Zheng-lian became Julia.

Unfortunately, Jing-nan’s parents both died, leaving him the family food stall in the famous Shilin Night Market. Jing-nan had vowed to claim Julia’s hand in marriage after he became successful, a vow increasingly difficult to keep. Unknown to Jing-nan/Johnny, his family owed a great monetary debt to a gangster. Instead of continuing with his American education, Jing-nan had to return to Taipei to keep the food stall going. As a matter of honor, he refused to contact Julia about his reversal of fortune. When Ghost Month begins, it has been several years since he has had contact with Julia. During that time, Jing-nan has assumed that Julia graduated from college and remained in the U.S. with a good job.

Then one day Jing-nan picks up the newspaper and reads about Julia’s murder at a betel nut stand in Taiwan. Betel nut girls provocatively invite men to buy betel nuts, an intoxicant, from their stands. Sometimes the men are invited to purchase more than just betel nuts. Julia — ambitious, smart Julia — was a betel nut girl.

Everything that Jing-nan knew about Julia fights against that scenario. He knows that he must find out who murdered her. He is especially concerned when he is warned off his investigation by a mysterious ABC (an American-born Chinese).

It wouldn’t be an Ed Lin book if there weren’t also humor in the story. Lin uses descriptions of Jing-nan’s funny and endearing relationships with his two food stall employees, Dwayne and Frankie, and his encounters with eccentric Shilin Market workers to balance Jing-nan’s sad and lonely search for who Julia was.

Because Ghost Month is a book with a great sense of place, a good story, interesting characters, and a tender heart, here’s an MBTB star.

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