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Powells.com
Saturday, March 18th, 2006


 

White Ghost Girls

by Alice Greenway

Lost in Adolescence

A review by Alexis Smith

First novels can be a gamble. The average bookstore carries thousands of titles, and at $15 to $25, why go for an untested, unknown writer when the latest literary bestseller, or the newest from a literary staple, is confidently faced out on the same shelf? Those crowd pleasers had to start somewhere, though, and taking a risk occasionally pays off. Alice Greenway's White Ghost Girls, recently nominated for the Orange Prize, is one example of how gambling on first novels can be a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Greenway tells the story of two American sisters, Kate and Frankie, castaways on the shores of adolescence, in 1960s Hong Kong. Their father is a photographer who travels back and forth between Saigon and his family in Hong Kong. His wife spends her days painting flowers and landscapes, stubbornly ignoring both the increasingly violent political atmosphere and her daughters' need for attention. Without the angst and self-consciousness of many first-time novelists, Greenway allows the story to unfold in a series of image-heavy scenes that feel like dreams or snippets of a Super-8 film. Kate, the younger sister, narrates the story of one summer in which their lives are irrevocably altered.

When the novel opens, the girls witness a young woman's body surfacing next to their junk. She is a victim of Mao's revolution, which is influencing activists in Hong Kong, and her appearance is an ominous harbinger of the changes coming for Kate and Frankie. Both girls are teetering on the edge of childhood. Left to their own devices, they resort to childish games of make-believe. But both girls struggle with desires they cannot name. Kate watches as Frankie flirts with her father's friends, seduces the nephew of an English ex-patriot, and swims topless despite her developing breasts. Kate's narrative voice is subtle and expertly drawn. She narrates from the future, but as an adult completely submerged in memory, so that the observations of the introspective, confused younger sister come through in the present tense.

Later in the night, Frankie throws her heavy leg over my thighs and whispers hot in my ear. We're lying on mattresses spread out over the floor of the cabin. Rattan sides are rolled up on either side to let in the sea breeze.
'He put his hand right up near my crotch,' Frankie breathes incredulously. 'It's so gross. Don't you think so?'
I hide in the dark. Don't say anything, hope she won't make me. How can she act so prudish when I saw her rub her leg against him, clutch at him as she fell over the side?...
I roll over, angry with my older sister for not admitting what we know. For making me see too much, then asking me to pretend it didn't happen.

Frankie is desperate for their father's attention, so much so that she causes childish scenes to distract him from showing affection for her sister, even on Kate's thirteenth birthday. But like all good stories of sibling rivalry, at the core is an unshakable loyalty that one sibling doesn't dare betray. Kate is torn between the secrets the two share -- secrets dictated and often created by Frankie -- and her desire to tell her own story and have her own secrets.

Kate cannot help but harbor her own secrets, and soon, she betrays her sister by falling in love for the first time, with a Chinese classmate named Fish. The relationship between Fish, who is deaf, and Kate is perhaps the most touching and memorable part of the novel.

The snail's belly licks the deaf boy's palm, it slithers down the side of his thumb. I move my hand against his, hold still until the snail climbs across. Its dark body carries with it a spiral temple, a hiding place, a retreat, secrets. The deaf boy keeps his hand against mine. The sand swirls around the backs of our legs.

Kate and Fish share a love for the landscape, its flora and fauna, and a kind of solemn silence -- the one inside Kate, and the one outside Fish. The fact that Kate approaches womanhood with a grace and reverence that her older sister does not have makes Frankie's story all the more tragic. But it also reaffirms that the story was never about Frankie, as Kate states more than once in the narrative. While the Kate of the story is stunned into silence by her sister, the Kate who narrates the novel has found her voice.

One of the most pleasing aspects of White Ghost Girls is the way Greenway catalogs the time and place: the smells, the colors, the textures, the marketplace, the mountains, the Communist protestors, the temple of Kuan Yin, the birds, the flowers, the names of rivers and cities. The sensory details occasionally become overwhelming, but Kate's voice always draws us back to the narrative, back to the ways in which the girls' experiences of adolescence are chaotic and beautiful just like the world around them. Luckily, Greenway strikes a neat balance between the impulse to poeticize and the need to create a compelling story -- not an easy task. In that way, White Ghost Girls is not only good for a first novel, it is as good as many books by writers far more popular and seasoned than she.


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