In the city lives Bissen Singh, still troubled by his experiences of another battleground. He longs for his English sweetheart and walks to the post office each day, desperate for word from her.
His friends Gurdial and Jeevan, two orphan boys, are both on the verge of finding their own place in the world. Gurdial hopes that his place will be with his beloved Sohni, despite his fears that her father won't think an orphan could ever be worthy of his daughter's hand. Jeevan has no sweetheart, and so he looks to his new friends for a sense of belonging - little realising that they may not be all that they seem...
City of Ghosts is set primarily in Amritsar, India, at a time of great unrest. The narrative consists of several different story threads woven together with the help of flashback scenes, characters' letters, and even a little magic realism. The main thread is that of Bissen Singh, a young Sikh who fought for the British army during World War I and is now living back in Amritsar. Bali Rai takes us back to Bissen's horrific experiences on the battlefields of France and also to the wartime hospital where his romance with English nurse Lillian first blossomed. In addition, we have the story of orphan boy Gurdial and his sweetheart Sohni, desperate to be together despite opposition from her self-serving father. Alongside these tales of star-crossed lovers, there's the story of lonely Jeevan, who falls under the influence of the revolutionaries who befriend him - with terrible consequences. The action comes to a head on the day of the Amritsar Massacre, which occured in April 1919 when a troop of British soldiers opened fire on unarmed Indian civilians.
I sometimes find that historical novels can be a little dry, especially when an author sacrifices storytelling or characterisation for the sake of historical accuracy. This is definitely not the case in City of Ghosts. So while Bali Rai makes use of certain historical details in his portrayal of the events leading to the Amritsar Massacre and Bissen Singh's experiences in World War I, the focus is generally personal, through the eyes of fictional characters. My favourite moments were definitely those when fact and fiction blurred, such as when Bisssen sneaks out from his hospital ward at the Royal Pavilion to join Lillian for his first ever taste of British fish and chips.
Although there is a certain amount of bloodshed in the story, this is always portrayed in a way that reminds the reader that these episodes in our history were lived through by those who felt the pain of them first hand. These are not dry old facts we're dealing with; they're the moving and tragic stories of real people. Alongside the harsher details of this era we're also treated to the beauty of Sohni and Gurdial's story, and the almost fairytale magic of the mysterious stranger who helps Gurdial with the seemingly impossible task that Sohni's evil father sets for him.
City of Ghosts is a little more grown up than most YA novels I've read. Despite the fact that it deals with a difficult period in British-Indian history, I found the novel's message to be a positive one. This is a book that gives us love and hate side by side, and reassures us that out of the two love is the more powerful of human emotions. I'd recommend this one to readers who would like to learn more about an often-overlooked aspect of world history, and to anybody who enjoys a beautiful love story. It's epic, moving and as haunting as the title suggests.
Out: paperback edition March 4th 2010, UK
Many thanks to Random House / Corgi for providing a review copy of this book.