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.
If anyone you know ever feels hesitant to read middle-grade books, then do them a favour: introduce them to The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf. From her young-adult debut, The Weight of Our Sky, about a Malay teen searching for her mother during the 1969 race riots that took place in Malaysia, Hanna’s middle-grade debut is, quite frankly, a book exceeds words. By that, I mean that when I finished this back in August, I was speechless. By that, I also mean that how I feel about this book, my utmost love and adoration and awe for it, cannot be expressed in mere words. But, for the sake of this review and because I want nothing more than for all of you to read it, I hope I can do the beauty of this book some justice.
The Girl and the Ghost is a middle-grade novel about, well, as the title suggests: a Malay girl called Suraya raised by her single mother and a pelesit, or a ghost, whom she inherits from her grandmother. Though an unlikely pair, both Suraya and the pelesit, whom she calls Pink, form an inseparable bond. But when Suraya starts a new school in the city and discovers a world much greater than her small village and the friendship of Pink, his jealousy grows. Moreover, when a greedy pawang (shaman) threatens the two, they must solve the mystery of Pink’s past to survive.
What I loved about The Girl and the Ghost is that it feels like a folktale, told by an older relative who is trying to scare you into behaving (and I say that with the utmost affection)! Set in a Malaysian kampung far away the city, Hanna’s writing has a nostalgic quality – or, at least, it felt very nostalgic to me. The story has its endearing moments – I mean, the pelesit’s name is Pink! Funny and strange as it may seem, Pink’s name works so well in the context of the story – but it’s also balanced with some genuinely spooky moments. There were some truly eerie moments that gave me the chills! If you like being a little spooked and don’t mind some horror-esque imagery with supernatural elements, then you will love The Girl and the Ghost.
Perhaps one of the most unassuming stories I’ve read in awhile, The Girl and the Ghost takes the reader on a wild, sometimes dark, sometimes haunting, and sometimes emotional journey about friendship, loneliness, revenge, and jealousy. Though this may seem like an eclectic blend of themes, Hanna blends them seamlessly together that centers on Suraya and Pink’s unconventional yet intense relationship. The way Hanna explores toxic friendships, how they can begin as something initially good-natured and well-intended and how jealousy and loneliness can devolve a relationship into something that is intense and gnaws friends from the inside out. The Girl and the Ghost is not intended to be a ‘teachable’ book, but I think this is a great book that depicts what toxic friendships look like in a way that younger people can understand. (On that note, I also really liked that Suraya clearly establishes boundaries with Pink – and is provides a good example of what boundary-setting looks like. Whether Pink adheres to these boundaries, though, is another question, and any oversteps are challenged.)
And yet, though this story is about toxic friendships, The Girl and the Ghost offers a layered image of where messy feelings can come from – and that, at its heart, it is a story about friendship and that friends can and do hurt each other. Though it never condones the bad stuff, I liked that The Girl and the Ghost shows how friendships can be hard and how our complicated feelings can make things harder. Importantly, both Suraya and Pink are given so much development that readers will be on-board their journey with them from the get-go. We truly come to understand Suraya and her loneliness and why, because of the bullying she experiences, a true friend who sees her beyond her poverty is so important to her. Likewise, we come to understand Pink, who has never know friendship since his existence become consumed with jealousy and rage when Suraya, his only friend and a girl who he has cared for since she was a baby, slowly drifts away from him. The messiness that unfolds between them and how it shapes their lives was told brilliantly – and I found it so difficult to put down.
CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Girl and the Ghost ranks as one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a middle-grade of the highest calibre and sets, in my opinion, a gold standard of what middle-grade fantasy can look like. I enjoyed this book so much. I am so thankful that Hanna is writing us Malaysians these unapologetic Malaysian stories – and I cannot wait for more in the future.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: When a girl inherits a pelesit (ghost) from her grandmother, the two strike an unlikely friendship – until his darker nature rears its ugly head.
Perfect for: readers who love a story that’s a little spooky; readers who enjoy a story that explores friendship, especially toxic friendships; readers who are looking to read stories inspired/influenced by Malaysian folklore
Think twice if: you’re not looking for a spookier read (see warnings below)
Genre: middle-grade, paranormal
Trigger/content warning: bullying, mild fantasy horror (may disturb some readers), mention of death of loved one, mild fantasy violence