book review

The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson


The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson

Brief Summary: San Francisco, Chinatown, at the end of the 19th century. Li-lin is a daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist who keeps the town safe from malevolent spirits. A sorcerer traps Li-lin in the spirit world and cripples her father, setting a terrible plan in motion that will destroy not only Chinatown but San-Francisco itself.  The Girl with Ghost Eyes attempts to incorporate a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore.

This review has also been posted on my tumblr blog: bookphile.

I had my reservations about reading The Girl with Ghost Eyes, but only because it’s a book about Chinese immigrants and Chinese mythology written by a white man. In my personal experience, books featuring foreign cultures written by white authors generally turn out to be disappointing.This book however, turned out to be disappointing for other reasons.

Based on the fact that the book focuses on characters who are Chinese immigrants and Chinese mythology, The Girl with Ghost Eyes had the potential to be wildly imaginative, beautifully lyrical, and even scary (have you heard of Chinese monsters? They make European monsters look like a joke)  do to it’s rich subject matter. However, Boroson’s writing style is so bland that the book is neither vivid nor engaging.

“My father placed First Treasure at the bottom of his iron basket. First Treasure was coarse paper painted with purple and green stripes. Moving with the soft, rounded motions of a true taiji master, my father lit the match’s flame. Fire took the printed sheet by inches. Each movement was perfect, because perfection mattered to him. When the bill had began to burn well, he dropped the flaming bank note onto First Treasure. He lit another bill. ”

“I looked up. It was getting dark out. Fog and smoke obscured the streets. In the haze I saw something glowing. It was a rich amber glow. It came from a pair of eyes.”

The sentences above exemplify the writing style of the book; there’s no showing, just telling, so that even the scariest monsters seem lifeless, descriptions that should have been breathtaking fall flat, and the action feels too technical to be engaging.

The main character is probably the best part of the book, she was complex, imperfect, and even a tad frustrating. Li-lin is Chinese immigrant living in Chinatown is San Francisco; a young widow only at twenty-three, she lives with her father who is a Daoshi exorcist. Occasionally, Li-lin acts kind of stupid and immature for someone who is twenty-three. She’s also headstrong, quick to anger and impulsive. But she’s also super brave and selfless. I mean no one gives a shit about this girl – including her father – and she still goes out of her way to save everyone anyway. That is what makes Li-lin such a faulty yet endearing character.

Her father on the other hand – and in fact all the other male characters in this book- are all selfish assholes. Interested in nothing but their own fortunes and reputations, or “the face” and losing “face” in public. However, it is important to remember that this book is written with a Chinese cultural voice and not applying Western cultural standards to these characters will probably make some aspects of this book easier to swallow.

So overall, great cultural research, interesting characters, and fascinating and rich subject matter, but a poor writing style does it all great disservice.

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