City of Ghosts by Bali Rai is a bit of a departure for me. This is a teenage novel, not suitable for our school library and not the sort of thing my eldest child, who is more the target audience, would go for. She has recently branched into adult fiction and is currently working her way through the Sue Grafton ABC murder series, so there is no need for me to read this kind of thing, particularly when there is a huge reading list by my bed already.
I chose it however, after seeing an interview with Rai on the death of Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole series. Townsend’s death hit me hard. I grew up with Adrian, and coming from Leicester myself I felt a curious kinship with her over the years. Rai, it transpires is also Leicester born and bred and was inspired by and eventually became a friend of Townsend. His comments in the interview sparked my interest in his work, and I picked this book up from the library when I was there in the Easter holidays with my son.
City of Ghosts, I now realise, after having read Rai’s own post script to the novel, is atypical of his usual fare. It is a magical realist novel set at the time of the massacre at Amritsar in 1919. It tells the story of orphans Jeevan and Gurdial, and their attempts to find their family in whatever way that means to each of them. In Gurdial’s case it means him pursuing what seems like his impossible love for the high caste daughter of a rich merchant, for Jeevan it is about his taking his place in a gang committed to disrupting English rule in the city.
Their story is entwined with that of Bissan, a young man who fought for the English in WWI and who still carries the scars, emotional and physical of his time in France and recuperating from a shell injury in England.
The realistic parts of the story were superb. I learned a lot, and Rai has a section at the back of the book where he fills you in on how far he has stretched the facts of the historical events to suit his fictional story, which helps put things into perspective, and opens up a lot of interesting further research should you desire to follow it up. I was less enamoured of the magical parts of the story, I have to say. They seemed rather random and simply there to hurry along inconveniently tangled up plot lines that would not necessarily have worked out so smoothly if magic had not intervened.
Having said that, it was well written and gripping.
It is suitable for both boys and girls. Although it is a love story there are a lot of strong male characters and the sections on the fighting in WWI and the massacre at Amritsar are bloody enough to suit the most violent of tastes.
It is suitable for teens aged about 13 and up. It does contain mild sex scenes. Mild because you know they are having sex but the author handles them quite tastefully.
I shall definitely be reading more of Rai based on this and I am intrigued to find out what his usual style entails.