White Ghost Girls
The narrator of White Ghost Girls, Kate, is on the verge of 13, and her words—“What can you give me? . . . Can you give me my father’s hand in mine? Frankie’s in the other? Then take everything and go away?”—perfectly capture her struggle to breathe in 1967 Hong Kong. With her 14-year-old sister, Frankie, she explores the politically raddled city while their photojournalist father captures violent images of Vietnam.
This small debut novel starts slow and goes at a steady pace, but through Kate author Alice Greenway pulls you in with quick, illuminating lines. Kate’s “quiet and secretive” voice sets the tone of the novel, which doesn’t get loud until the novel’s end, when Kate finally hears her own voice screaming. But it’s those quiet secrets that ultimately make the novel so moving. Greenway reveals the emotions and perceptions of a young girl navigating Hong Kong’s multilayered chaos—and she does so brilliantly.
What Greenway does so beautifully is portray Kate and Frankie’s predicament—a father with an unhealthy obsession with Vietnam and a mother who has physically and emotionally detached herself from him—through an unraveling relationship with their host city. Under the critical eyes of their nanny, Ah Bing—who baptizes them with the name that translates as “white ghost girls”—the sisters forge an intimate bond with their surroundings. In attempts to be closer to their father, who only comes home after months in the thick of it, they make their own mystery, their own drama: “Saigon Duck’s stories are fairy tales for children. In them we don’t grow up. We have to ferret out the stories my father doesn’t tell, fill in the relevant facts, the things we need to know, like hunter-gatherers, enemy spies.”
They find an old, abandoned house that they use as a playhouse, pretending it’s been bombed. “It’s our hideout, a no-man’s land, a place no one will find us, where we keep secret treasures.” And though Kate and Frankie are forever trying to extract the secret realities from their father’s cleaned-up versions of his job, it’s Kate who bears the most damaging secrets.
At their pubescent ages, both sisters want a more powerful presence. Both want to feel closer to their parents, especially their father. But it’s the ever-rebellious Frankie who wants to experience whatever thrill it is that keeps their father in the war while Kate chooses to reflect more on who their father is. Thus when Ah Bing takes them into the city marketplace, it’s Frankie who grabs Kate and breaks away to an exploration that tragically changes both of their lives. At this point, you realize that this entire tale is Kate attempting to make sense of her past. With the cultural upheavals of Hong Kong and war-torn Vietnam as the backdrop, Greenway has managed to weave a bittersweet tale of sisters, history, and violence.