The Hungry Ghost by H. S. Norup

Cover Art by Anna Morrison

As someone who follows quite a few authors, readers and other bookish people on Twitter, perhaps unsurprisingly I have a lot of new book titles pop up in my feed. Some I just scroll past because they do not appeal and others, like this one, jump out at me and beg for further inspection. This one very much caught my eye and having seen it was available on Net Galley, and having read through the blurb there, I immediately requested it and was delighted to be approved – setting about reading it as soon as it had downloaded.

Our story opens with Freja, who has travelled to Singapore to stay with her father and his second family after somewhat reluctantly leaving behind her mother in Denmark. Having arrived, she finds that stepmother Clementine has prepared her a very ‘girly’ room – something which does not please Freja who delights in being a scout, into outdoors activities and for whom practicality is everything.

Awake after dark due to her body clock being out of kilter and feeling hot and bothered, Freja looks out of her window and is intrigued by a girl she sees in the garden with her father – a girl with long black hair and wearing a knee-length white dress. After going to fetch her torch to help her to see what is going on more easily, she finds that both her father and the girl have disappeared, leaving her none the wiser. Returning to bed, she thinks about the mother she is already missing terribly, whose ill health has led to Freja being sent away in order to give her time with a ‘normal happy family’.

Following a visit to The Botanic Gardens with Clementine and her twin half-brothers, Freja is left alone in the family garden to swim and sunbathe and becomes aware of the mysterious girl’s presence once more. When the girl vanishes again, a determined Freja sets off in pursuit to try to talk to her.

After losing sight of her close to a graveyard filled with lush trees and plants, Freja reluctantly returns home only to upset a neighbouring boy by accidentally stepping in what she takes for a pile of rubbish but what he tells her is an offering to his ancestors as part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. This festival takes place for a month each year and is believed by the locals to be a time when the spirits of the dead wander the earth and those still living respectfully remember their ancestors.

The following day, a more prepared Freja decides to return to the graveyard, now identified as Bukit Brown, and again spots the girl who is sitting on a gravestone before she disappears yet again leaving an increasingly frustrated Freya unable to talk to her. Looking around more carefully for clues, Freya uncovers a symbol on the gravestone and makes a copy of it before discovering that the girl has left what Freja believes to be a message for her written in Morse code.

Back home, Clementine identifies the message as a forerunner to the distress call SOS and is able to tell Freja that the symbol not only could mean the girl’s name Ling but also has a second meaning: ‘spirit’. When Clementine discovers that Freja has been visiting Bukit Brown, she forbids her to return, telling Freja that it is far too dangerous but Freja is determined to take no notice of the woman she resents for not being her mother.

Resolving to find out once and for all who the girl is, Freja researches hungry ghosts and comes to the realisation that Ling is desperately in need of her help. Her decision to assist Ling no matter what it entails sets in motion a series of events which will lead both girls into making discoveries about themselves and their families, leaving neither unaffected by the end of the festival.

While stories of ghosts exist all around the world, the Hungry Ghost Festival is one with which I was unfamiliar and I had to look online to find out more about it. Having done so, I now know that it is associated with Buddhist and Taoist countries such as China and in addition to introducing many readers to this concept, the book features other mythology from these countries which I will not go into here for fear of including spoilers.

There are some some scary parts within the book, linked to that mythology, but this is not a ghost story – at least not in the traditional sense. Anyone who wants or expects a spine-chilling read with stereotypical hauntings should look elsewhere .

Many children will empathise with Freja’s feelings towards her blended family from personal experience and will understand the resentment she feels both at being separated from her mother and being forced to spend time with Clementine – somebody whose apparent obsession with her appearance and social media are of no interest to Freja. Her desperation to make her own way in her new environment and the way in which Freja’s father feels he needs to give his work greater priority than Freja would like, will also echo with many children – even more so possibly now that many parents are returning to work after being at home 24/7 during lockdown.

Although both Freja and Ling are girls, I would not say this is a ‘girly’ book. Freja’s scouting skills with compass and Swiss Army Knife for example are put to good use throughout the story and many boys will aspire to be like her in the way she escapes from the house and shows her determination to visit Bukit Brown. As someone who quite regularly used to climb trees and play on the neighbouring building site, in contravention of my parents’ rules, I would’ve greatly admired the practical ways in which Freja manages to both sneak out of the house and her defying the conventions that she is expected to fit in with.

This would make a great read for children in Year 4 upwards to read alone or to share with an adult – I very much enjoyed it, especially all of the details about the hungry ghosts and the mythology with which I was not familiar. Huge thanks yet again to Net Galley, and also to Pushkin Press for allowing me to read this ahead of publication on 24th September.

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