“Things are different when you’re a ghost.” Three Souls by Janie Chang

“Things are different when you’re a ghost.” In Janie Chang‘s 2014 novel Three Souls, those differences begin with the constraints on how a ghost tells a story. The first-person narrative of Three Souls (first-ghost narrative, really, adding a wrinkle to the idea of ghostwriter) haunts three dimensions, viewing the past from the present and looking into the future, however this ghost, once named Song Leiyin, is not able to rattle chains or moan in the dark and, ultimately, can only influence the living by appearing in their dreams.

Accompanying Leiyin’s ghost in limbo are her three souls, each of which has distinctively different guidance for how they together can move on to the afterlife. Each soul is a different aspect of Leiyin’s own character: the yang soul, the severe father within her, the yin soul, herself as a sprightly young girl, and her hun soul, her serene common sense, a trinity of father, daughter, and wise heart (which some have compared to ego, superego, and id).

Ghosts quite often appear as narrators. In recent memory, there are The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s 2004 story told by the ghost of a murdered girl, and Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan’s 2005 tale of a ghost who, like Leilin, also attends her own funeral. Goodreads has a list of 31 books with “Dead Narrators.” However, I would guess that a Chinese ghost with three of her own souls in attendance is a novel approach, a quartet that serves simultaneously as protagonist and Greek chorus, although the souls in this chorus are individuals often out of harmony who reveal thoughts and feelings before they occur to their ghost. (Kirkus says the three souls plot device is contrived – sure, about as much as the Greek chorus is contrived; when is Kirkus going to hire anybody other than high school sophomores to do reviews?)

Song Leiyin was the third daughter, the youngest girl of a wealthy family in Changchow (Changzhou) China, where her tale begins in 1928. The family includes two older sisters, two older brothers, and a concubine they call stepmother. All in the family are deferential to the stern patriarch, but Leiyin harbors a pinch of rebellion against the oppression of family tradition.

“My father wouldn’t allow me to go to college, so I ran away. But I failed. Father married me off as punishment for my disobedience.”

All manner of lust and betrayal propel the narrative, the same as afflicts family drama in any country, and in China was walled around by the stifling traditions of that era. Eventually, Leiyin dies in a tragic accident, after having caused extraordinary but unintended harm to others, and her ghost and souls must set matters right before being allowed to move on to the afterlife and eventual reincarnation. The urgency of Leiyin’s plight grows with each obstacle in the path of a nearly helpless ghost who, if time runs out before she has redeemed herself, will be doomed to wander forever, a hungry ghost lost in the miasma between life and death.

Three Souls displays fine instances of figurative language, as in these examples remarkable for their rhythm and alliteration:

…the story had traveled…as widely as the wanderings of a mendicant monk.
The courtyard…[was] packed as tightly as fermented black beans in a stoneware jar.

One enigmatic aspect of the story, evident to Chinese readers, is the service performed by what the author calls “generational name,” a custom that chooses a single thematic character to be deployed in each given name of a family’s children. This appears in Three Souls when Leiyin’s child is assigned the generational name character “wei” by her grandfather. Elsewhere, the reader is introduced to the Song family’s offspring as:

Changyin              1st son
Tongyin                 2nd son
Gaoyin                   1st daughter
Suiyin                     2nd daughter
Leiyin                     3rd daughter

In the case of the Song family, the generational name clearly is “yin,” although this is not referred to in the story. The author tells me she did not make up a list of character names in Chinese, leaving perhaps 1 in 10,000 readers to speculate which “yin” character is the “yin” in Leiyin. So, because the yin soul’s name probably is derived from the Yin Yang cosmology, which yin is 陰, I have assigned the same character as the generational name of the Song children. Next, going way out on the family limb, I have played patriarch and chosen the characters that seem best suited for Leiyin’s name, not easy as there are few combinations of lei and yin in Mandarin. I wound up with 磊陰, meaning for lei 磊 sincere, open, and honest (figuratively), and for yin 陰 feminine, or moon. Alternatively, lei 蕾 meaning flower bud, or unopened flower might be used. So you see, Three Souls has been even more entertaining for some readers.

Another hidden entertainment in the book is the penchant of the souls to express their attitudes with taste and scents. When the yang soul renders judgment it often will cause a taste to fall upon Leiyin’s tongue; when the yin soul offers an opinion, she often will have Leiyin smell a particular scent. Each taste and scent is just right for the mood of her souls – sweet or sour – and never repeated. For readers paying attention, this becomes a game of anticipation almost as compelling as the arc of the plot.

The yang soul’s tastes include mustard, raw ginger, bitter tea, red vinegar, dry salt fish, sweet bean soup, turnips, capsicum, sweet honey, sour unripe plums, ripe fruits, rotting fruits, dried kumquat, tamarind, “something pungent and herbal,” iron tang, peppery taste, etc.

The yin soul’s scents include camellia, opium smoke, chives, shalimar, star anise, crushed chrysanthemum petals, sandalwood, iris, “something green and leafy,” lilacs, steamed rice, saltpeter, mildew, old books, dried lemongrass, peppercorns, white freesias, mothballs, ozmanthus blossom, wisteria, urine, etc.

As for the inevitable bugbear of historical fiction, anachronisms, I could find only these candidates: canteen (flask would have been better), “list of chores” and “cross off,” and hopscotch. Even if appropriate for that time, these words distract from the ambiance of the story by yanking a reader into the present day. There are so few, however, that readers need pay them no heed.

At the conclusion of the story, readers are left to make their own closure…which I found not at all difficult.

In the end, Leiyin’s family concludes: “It’s wise to listen to the spirits of the dead when they make an effort to help us.”

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