THE GIRL AND THE GHOST
by Hanna Alkaf
middle grade | fantasy
publication date: 4 August 2020 by HarperCollins
A Malaysian folk tale comes to life in this emotionally layered, chilling middle grade debut, perfect for fans of The Book of Boy and The Jumbies.
I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.
Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable.
But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive . . . before they are both lost to the darkness.
Fans of Holly Black’s Doll Bones and Tahereh Mafi’s Furthermore series will love this ghostly middle grade debut that explores jealousy, love, and the extraordinary power of friendship.
One sentence to summarize how I feel reading this book: I really love how The Girl and The Ghost turned out.
It’s not a secret that Hanna Alkaf is an excellent writer when it comes to playing her readers’ emotions. Like her previous work, The Weight of Our Sky, The Girl and the Ghost has the same elements, which are; family, friendship, emotional yet happy ending, Malaysian culture and folklore that really influence the story and of course, strong characters. The Girl and the Ghost is a thrilling, emotional middle grade book that makes children feel seen in a book.
AN ATMOSPHERIC STORY SETS IN SMALL VILLAGE
I’ve always adored Hanna Alkaf’s writing. She’s able to create such an atmospheric story that brings a sense of nostalgia, even the smallest thing can remind you of your childhood. While you’re reading this, I’m sure that you’d feel like you’re transferred to Suraya’s village, watching her grow up and grow distant from children her age. You can feel Malaysian heat and the sound of mosquitos at night, the row of trees that seems to go on forever. Hanna Alkaf created an excellent world building that leaves her readers to imagine the scenery perfectly, creating a rendezvous for readers who want to escape from a big city.
Yet she grew like a weed and was just about as welcome as one everywhere she went. It wasn’t that the villagers didn’t like her; it was just that trouble seemed to cling to her like a shadow or a bad smell. And yet, they muttered to themselves, shaking their heads as she ran helter-skelter past them, she seemed to lead a sort of charmed life: she picked not-quite-ripe fruit from the orchards and never complained of tummy aches; she ran across roads without a single thought for the cars or bicycles that might be zooming past; she climbed trees far too tall for her and fell from them often, yet always seemed to land on her feet; and once, she poked at an ant mound and giggled as angry red fire ants swarmed all over her body, tickling her with their feet and never leaving a single mark. In this way, she went through her days without a care in the world, secure in the knowledge that she would somehow always be safe.
Even when things start to get creepy, Hanna Alkaf is able to take away all the warm feelings you have. Every description of the places Suraya, Pink, and Jing have ever been makes you feel like you’re there with them–that you feel their emotion and struggle. You start fearing for Suraya’s safety once things start getting serious.
Maybe it’s just me, but I really like the way Hanna Alkaf creates an atmospheric story that stirs my emotions. Is it possible to feel devastated over a ghost story? You decide yourself.
THE GHOST HAS HIS OWN POINT OF VIEW!
Yes, you heard me right! But let me remind you again that this is a middle grade book, which is targeted toward children. The idea of this book would be as scary as any other ghost movie is completely wrong. Despite having a cast of ghosts (yes, plural!) of every children’s nightmare, this book is nowhere near scary. (or maybe I’m saying this because our Miss Pontianak doesn’t make an appearance, but her sister and brothers are equally scary, okay?)
So when the ghost–Pink–has his own point of view, I’m delighted.
I am a dark spirit, the ghost said desperately. I am a powerful being. I have the wisdom of the ages. I cannot be called PINK.
Pink is a pelesit, an evil spirit from Malay folklore. Every ghost in Malay folklore has their own backstory when they were alive or how/why they were created, and the book is actually about finding out Pink’s story. Pink played a large role in shaping the story and honestly? I kinda love his ARC. It’s such a surprise that Hanna Alkaf successfully made me sympathize with a ghost, because once you have seen Malay ghosts (like our lovely Miss Pontianak who sadly isn’t invited to the party or langsuir for example), I swear you just don’t want to deal with them.
It’s just… so cool to read a book where the ghost has POV and feelings. Although I can’t help but mutter if only they recite ayatul kursi whenever spooky things happen… I’m sorry.
A BOOK THAT INTRODUCES ‘HARD’ TOPICS TO CHILDREN
What I love the most about middle grade books is that it teaches you something about life, despite the story being lighter than young adult books. The Girl and the Ghost brings up a few topics that I feel like we need to introduce to children, such as; types of relationship, loneliness, feeling out of place, religion stigma, tolerance, grief, privilege and of course bullying.
Adults tend to treat children as if they’re breakable things and that they should be happy all the time. While I agree that we shouldn’t put our weight onto children, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have serious conversations about things that they may experience, but don’t know how to handle.
Growing up, I felt what Suraya felt toward her mother, and of course, I didn’t know how to deal with the distance and the grief that followed me everywhere. Reading this book kinda opened up some of my wound but I’m glad that Hanna Alkaf wrote a story to teach her younger audiences how to deal with these things.
She realized that being Pink’s friend was like dancing on the edge of a precipice; it was fun, and you were on solid ground as long as you didn’t slip, but you worried about that line separating you from the darkness all the time. Being friends with Jing, by contrast, was like . . . just dancing, with a partner who matched your every move. It was easy and free, balancing and satisfying. It felt right. It felt good.
When you’re reaching halfway through the book, you’d feel a lot of emotions going through both Pink and Suraya. There are also two types of friendship that are shown in the story; healthy and toxic ones. Jing, being the first real friend of Suraya, is a girl she met in her school. They are able to maintain a supportive and healthy friendship. Jing brought up part of Suraya that she didn’t even know existed in the first place. I really, really love the dynamics between Jing and Suraya, these two also make me feel emotional.
Whereas Jing and Suraya held a healthy friendship, Pink and Suraya did not. Pink’s jealousy and fear of losing Suraya led him to take revenge and did unforgivable, hurtful things to people around Suraya. Of course this toxicity was sugarcoated, but I think Hanna Alkaf delivered her message in a manner where children can understand it easily. Pink was constantly being possessive toward Pink–and it’s understandable as those two were close since Suraya was still a small kid, but that doesn’t make it okay.
Nobody is ever really ready for goodbye, he said gently. But sometimes you need to bid farewell to the things holding you back so that you can move forward.
Then, there’s a talk about loneliness and grief, and how we should deal with them and move on. Suraya had always been feeling lonely since she was a kid, casually shrugging her feeling off because she was used to it. Grief and loneliness are two things children are not allowed to express, and I’m glad The Girl and the Ghost just shows children that it’s okay not to be happy.
THINGS I LOVE THE MOST ABOUT THE GIRL AND THE GHOST
- Maybe it’s not much but I appreciate when author features a Muslim character whose religion is not the only thing that define them. Suraya is a Muslim and she just exists; do her things, go to school, be a children–without need to proof that she’s a Muslim. I’m aware that the setting of the book influences the characterization, I still appreciate it. We deserve a Muslim character like Suraya.
- Suraya’s and Jing’s friendship! God, these two are sooooooo cute. It’s like having two little sisters whom we can’t tell what to do. I mean, if you read the book yourself, you’d understand why!
- [screams] the cultural aspects of the story!!! While I’m not Malaysian, Indonesia and Malaysia share a lot of similarities, including going home before Maghrib and inviting a pawang or scholar to banish evil from your house.
- The writing!! Again, this book is very atmospheric, thank you Hanna Alkaf.
- Funny scenes and conversations that make the book less spooky!
- The ending… Subhanallah, what a beautiful ending.
I really enjoy this book. Honestly, I was kinda afraid to start The Girl and The Ghost because once again, there’s nothing scarier than local ghosts (vampire who?), but I’m glad that Hanna Alkaf put the ghosts not to scare us, but rather to be a character. Consider reading this book if you:
- Love folklore and myth
- Need a light book to read
- Ownvoices book from Malaysian and Southeast Asian author
- Need to read more diverse middle grade book
- Love Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
Disclaimer: I received digital copy review from the author. This does not affect my review in any way; all opinions are my own.