You know how you read one book and then suddenly think that, this is it – I have to get all the books that this author has ever written or will write in the future, because this book is just it for me?
That was Hanna Alkaf.
I read her debut, The Weight of Our Sky back in early 2019 when it first came out. (You can read my review here.) I enjoyed this book immensely, utterly drawn in not only by the vivid pictue of 1960s Kuala Lumpur that the author painted, but by the book’s timeless message of unity and compassion.
So when I saw that Hanna had another book coming out this year, you can bet your bottom dollar I was excited as heck to read it. I was overjoyed when my request for an e-ARC was approved and now, I’ve finally finished it and am so happy to confirm that Hanna’s done it again! This was yet another excellent work so deserving of all the love and attention from the bookish community.
Title: The Girl and The Ghost
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Age Range: Middle Grade
Genre: Horror, Mystery/Thriller
Rating: Highly Recommended
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.
Content warnings: death of a child, grief, bullying
☕ Quotes ☕
“The familiar chirp of the grasshopper’s song echoed out into the darkness. If you were listening, you might have dismissed it as just another part of the soundtrack of midnight, along with the buzzing of mosquitoes and the chirping of geckos. But then again, this song wasn’t meant for you.”
“Maybe that was what she was. The durian of friends. Maybe people would learn to like her one day. Maybe she just had to meet the right ones.”
☕ Plot ☕
Let me tell you, the plot of this story just completely blew me away. I went into it expecting one of those middle grade books that starts out fun and lighthearted but then slowly descends into incredibly creeptastic otherworldliness that somehow manages to keep you up at night (think Coraline by Neil Gaiman). And while it would have been an excellent book if it had gone that route, Hanna Alkaf really took it to the next level by imbuing it with so much emotion.
The titular girl is Suraya, while the ghost is a pelesit gifted to her by her witch grandmother whom she eventually names Pink. Pink, as it turns out, is a pelesit, a spirit that often takes the form of a grasshopper or cricket and is similar to a familiar. At first, it seems that Pink is just a quiet, special friend for shy, bullied Suraya, but then a darker side of Pink emerges – a side that is not only determined to drive away Suraya’s bullies, but even the one girl she befriends.
I went into this book thinking that Pink was the antagonist, and that the book would be all about Suraya and her new friend Jing Wei trying to find some way to banish Pink and keep themselves safe. But it goes beyond that. Pink is more than a spirit attaching itself to a young, lonely, friendless girl. And Suraya’s adventures in learning about Pink, and his connection to her family, is more than an adventure with a new friend where she learns to be more outgoing. Instead, The Girl and The Ghost is, at its heart, a story about grief, how different generations process it, and how the inability to address it can lead to the pain continuing not just for yourself, but for the ones who come after you, like your children.
The plot of The Girl and The Ghost is pretty straightforward, but it’s also incredibly hard-hitting and gut-wrenching. I picked this up one evening expecting to read maybe 5 or so chapters – and instead I breezed through it and finished it in one day. It’s not a very long book, but it was one that left me sitting and thinking for a while about death, grief, loneliness, and loss.
Quick background – my boyfriend’s 17-year-old brother passed away last month, and yesterday was 40 days since his death. In Filipino culture, we believe that after 40 days, the soul of the departed ascends to Heaven. It’s a time for celebration and reflection on the life of the departed. This event in my life, coinciding with reading The Girl and The Ghost, really gave me a lot of food for thought when it comes to grieving and untimely death, especially the death of a child. Honestly, I can’t thank Hanna enough for writing this book and giving me a lot to think about. I ended up buying a copy each for my boyfriend and his mother, and I highly suggest checking this book out if these topics are things that have been on your mind for some time as well.
☕ Writing ☕
Like I said earlier, The Girl and The Ghost is a pretty straightforward book. To that end, the writing is also pretty simple and straightforward. But the way Hanna uses the words to deliver the book’s message was pretty impactful and thought-provoking, and it suited the book really well.
But what I really loved about the book is how it completely took me to another place and culture. I’ve mentioned this so many times before but one of the things I really adore in books is when it gives me a peek into a culture or country that’s different from mine, and The Girl and The Ghost does this beautifully. I’m not Malaysian, so take this with a grain of salt, but I really appreciated how this book was able to take me to what a Malaysian childhood might look like. There are some parallels to what a Filipino childhood might look like (Southeast Asia represent, lmao) – school uniforms, supposedly haunted banyan trees in courtyards, dusty roads, hot afternoons – but I was really taken to the small towns in Malaysia beyond Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu (the only places in Malaysia that I’ve ever been to, unfortunately) and I really loved that.
Needless to say, this book was incredibly atmospheric. Hanna Alkaf really has the gift of being able to transport her readers through space and time, and this book really accomplished that. I felt everything Hanna wanted the reader to feel, and then some.
And goodness gracious, that ending. It was simultaneously heartwarming and so painful and made me cry the ugliest tears ever. It made me want to call up my mom or give her a hug, and it really makes you think – as I said earlier – about grief and death and loneliness. Hanna is such a talented writer, and it really shows in this book.
☕ Characters ☕
Rounding out this magnificent book is a pair of the sweetest, most rounded out characters in a middle grade book I’ve ever read. Suraya, our protagonist, is one of the most relatable young girls out there. She’s shy, she feels like her mother doesn’t pay enough attention to her, she has no friends, and her mother refuses to answer any questions she has about her father or grandmother. Enter Pink, a spirit once used for malevolent purposes, now Suraya’s only friend and adjusting to the needs and personality of a young girl. Both characters, prior to meeting each other, are incredibly lonely, and this loneliness forms the cornerstone of their relationship. From there, we can see how they both grow and learn what they actually need, and it’s such a touching journey.
I also really particularly liked Suraya’s new friend, Jing Wei. Outgoing and extroverted, Jing Wei immediately takes a liking to Suraya and they become fast friends, even if Suraya doesn’t know about all the nerd culture that Jing Wei is such a huge fan of. Jing Wei turns out to be such an adorable ride-or-die friend, helping Suraya achieve of her goal of helping Pink out, and even getting to see and speak to Pink. Hers and Suraya’s friendship is warm and adorable, and one that I really enjoyed reading about. Friendships between girls in books hold a special place in my heart, and this one is a very nice addition to that!
☕ Overall ☕
The Girl and The Ghost is, as its title implies, a ghost story. But it’s so much more than that. It has lessons about love, family, friendship, loneliness, grief that everyone can learn something from. My advice? Get yourself a copy of this book, and then get one for the younger people in your life – your siblings, younger cousins, nieces and nephews, etc. Just spread this book and its warm, wonderful message around! You won’t regret it.
What did you think?
☕ Have you read this book? What about Hanna Alkaf’s debut? What did you think?
☕ Do you have any middle grade horror faves? Share them in the comments!
☕ Any books set in a country not your own that you absolutely loved?