City of Ghosts by Bali Rai

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City of Ghosts by Bali Rai

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Startlingly unusual blend of historical fiction and fantasy, centring on the Amritsar massacre of 1919. What it lacks in focus it more than repays by providing an affecting and absorbing read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2005
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385611692

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It's 1919. World War I is over and we are in Amritsar, shortly before the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, when the British Indian Army opened fire on a gathering of unarmed men, women and children and killed 379 of them.

Bissen Singh had fought for the British during the Great War and he has a limp and a lost love to prove it. He needs to get back to England and Lillian before he sinks completely into opium addiction. Gurdial and Jeevan are orphans. Gurdial also has romantic problems. He is in love with Sohni, the daughter of a rich merchant who will never countenance the union of his only daughter and a poor boy. Jeevan, in his loneliness, is swept up into the fomenting rebellion, his comrades replacing a family.

Amritsar is rich and vivid, teeming with people and culture. There are Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus. There are colonial Brits. There are rich and poor. And there are ghosts. Sohni's stepmother and her Chinese guide are bent on evil, but a kindly spirit is watching over the fates of the deserving.

Oh hooray! An unusual book! City of Ghosts has some magic realism about it. It's also historical fiction. It's a love story. A ghost story. A critique of colonialism. And more. For this jaded reviewer, who spends a great deal of time reading books that fit into rather narrow genres - teen girl needs boyfriend, fantasy quester vanquishes beasts, vampires come to New York City - it came as a real breath of fresh air. Rai doesn't seem too bothered about focus here. He's done his research, his imagination has kicked in, and he's run with it. The result is a book that does take a little while to get into, but once you have, it's thoroughly absorbing.

The parallel stories run along together in a rather resplendent patchwork of narrative. One moment, the tone is reminiscent of a grandly-told fairy tale. The next, we are in the bread-and-butter realism of how alienated boys are radicalised, and we're seeing history as it should be seen - utterly relevant to today. And then we're enjoying bittersweet first love affairs on a level that will be instantly recognisable to adolescent readers.

I enjoyed City of Ghosts, can you tell? It's the kind of book that leaves you buzzing with all sorts of thoughts after you've read it. There's so much going on that perhaps it shouldn't work, but it really, really does. Bravo!

My thanks to the nice people at Doubleday for sending the book.

They might also enjoy Anila's Journey by Mary Finn, a very literary piece of historical fiction about a girl alone in India at the end of the eighteenth century. Crusade by Elizabeth Laird is in a very different time and place, but looks at another massacre perpetrated by the English.

Buy City of Ghosts by Bali Rai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy City of Ghosts by Bali Rai at

Buy City of Ghosts by Bali Rai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy City of Ghosts by Bali Rai at


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