White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway Atlantic Books, $101 Few novels have managed to touch the kernel of the expatriate experience in Hong Kong. Maybe it takes the wide eyes of the child to see beyond the superficial, into the hearts of the disparate people who live side by side in a colony. White Ghost Girls is such a novel - a haunting coming-of-age story about two sisters for whom Hong Kong is home in the late 1960s. It's a triumphant first novel for Alice Greenway, who paints a deeply authentic picture, having grown up in Hong Kong as the daughter of an American foreign correspondent, and having been drawn back here in her young adulthood as a journalist. Greenway bases her novel on such a family scenario for her sideways take on colonial life. Frankie and Kate are the daughters of a photo-journalist whose heart lies elsewhere, in recording the misery of the Vietnam war. His family life is confined to rest and relaxation breaks away from the frontline. Their mother is equally divorced from the realities of her two girls, waiting for her husband's visits and living through the idealised watercolours she paints. The girls soak up the life of relative privilege and beyond, through all their senses - the likes of junk trips to the beaches and coves that expatriates enjoy to this day; and the smells of cooking and incense associated with the woman who is most real for them, their Chinese amah Ah Bing. This ephemeral world collides with the realities of a time of political turmoil, when the girls are touched by death from north of the colonial border and later when they inadvertently play a deadly role during one of the pro-communist riots closer to home. It's a backdrop that could be ridden by cliche and the implausible. But this is not a novel about Hong Kong, the 1967 riots or the Vietnam war. It's about girls growing up like 'shipwrecked sisters', or invisible like white ghosts, in a land where they are foreign yet one they will forever yearn for as home. The tale told through Kate's eyes with a melancholy sense of foreboding is driven by its characters. Frankie, who swims topless in azure waters and horrifies her mother by behaving like a heathen in church, is out of control. The younger, more measured Kate, for whom puberty is just arriving, desperately tries to provide the anchor for her sister's life. The bond between them, however, is tempered by their rivalry for parental love and attention. The adults, meanwhile, live a world apart. It's symbolic that a deaf Chinese boy can hear and respond to Kate's despair, while her parents remain deaf to so much around them. The ties between the sisters are ultimately wanting - for the depth of this novel lies in secrets Frankie shares with no one, and that Greenway so deftly never spells out. The author balances the unspeakable with her richly evocative descriptive powers. She captures the vibrancy of adolescent senses and angst in a setting that so many have come to love, even as outsiders. The result is a novel that is true to the Hong Kong experience, but goes beyond that in exploring the universal knife-edge that is parenting and growing up - a knife-edge between the paradise of unfettered youth, and suffering the horror of its hellish abyss.