Ghost Girl, Banana: A Novel
- By Wiz Wharton
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- May 23, 2023
A Chinese Brit hears from her mysterious benefactor in Hong Kong.
Lily Miller and her dead mother are at the center of Wiz Wharton’s marvelous debut novel, Ghost Girl, Banana. At 25, Lily is an unfulfilled musician and underachieving depressive in late-1990s London. A Cambridge dropout of mixed Chinese-British heritage, she’s also the younger sister of a beautiful Oxford law grad, Maya, who has scored a trophy marriage to an aging millionaire architect.
A sisterly disparity like this is a familiar and often tiresome mass-market/basic-cable trope. But Wharton gracefully depicts these sisters’ skewed relationship — laced with facile assumptions and snappy misunderstandings — with warmth, insight, and humor.
This clever, inspiring book starts — as mystery-driven tales occasionally do — with a puzzling missive. The letter promises an enticing bequest: An unknown Chinese “banking magnate” has left Lily £500,000. The sole condition: She must go to Hong Kong to sign the papers personally. Maya has received the same offer but, oddly, reacts with ho-hum disinterest, sternly discouraging her sister from responding.
Obstinate, Lily sets off, telling no one. She’s intent on finding out why she’s been selected. The passing of her benefactor, Hei Fong Lee, has come at a time of looming change for Hong Kong — the transfer of the city from British to Chinese control. In Wharton’s hands, it also parallels a liminal moment for Lily herself.
The Miller sisters have an ancestral connection to Hong Kong, detailed in the book’s parallel plot, which narrates (in retrospect) the story of Sook Yin Chen, the girls’ mother, in chapters alternating with the unfolding story of Lily’s 1997 pilgrimage. We take up Sook Yin’s tale some 30 years earlier, as she emigrates from Hong Kong to Britain. There, impregnated via date rape, Sook Yin backs into marriage with her aggressor, Englishman Julian Miller, a smarmy, dangerously self-absorbed pretender who might easily have clambered out of Jane Austen’s notebook.
On each narrative axis, Ghost Girl, Banana sets out the story of an exile’s return, one uplifting, the other tragic. After a decade in England, where their family business has collapsed, Sook Yin brings her husband and two young daughters back to Hong Kong. Embraced by her family, they’re there barely a few months when Sook Yin is killed in an accident. Then it’s back to London for the sisters — where, for 20 years, not a word reaches them from their Chinese kin. Still, Lily recalls her mom hazily: “Like a dripping tap or an unpaid bill Mumma was the squatter at the back of my brain, forever waiting for the moment to surprise me.” When the letter arrives, it’s an opportunity for closure.
As you might surmise from this rundown, the plot is packed in so thickly as to seem a throwback to 19th-century models; “crowded with incident,” as Oscar Wilde once put it. It has a raft of affinities to today’s popular romance fiction, too: longings revealed (or discovered) too late; jealously obstructive rivals; betrayals; coincidentally timely encounters; rotten, no-good husbands; surprise reunions; a necklace that links parallel arcs; and deplorable villains (“He used words the way hunters use traps, hiding them beneath flowers and sweet grass waiting for smaller animals to break their necks”).
And yet, this onrush of conventional writerly doodads doesn’t distract. Ingeniously slipped into the current, these commonplaces drove this reader’s interest ever onward, buttressed by bits of wondrously observed social comedy, as in the moment at Maya’s birthday gathering when Lily encounters “a weasel-faced toff in blazer and loafers who had clearly forgotten the purpose of socks.” These flashes of wit abound, especially early in the book, and then fade as the author seems to hunker down for more serious plot-building.
That’s too bad. Though literary commonplaces do stud this novel like raisins a Victorian fruitcake — and, yes, one suspects Wharton is dressing her plot for success in the marketplace — this is a stirring, ultimately heartening tale, honest and true to how things are. A-plus.
Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.