Water Ghosts: A Novel by Shawna Yang Ryan
How ironically fitting that Shawna Yang Ryan’s debut novel – about, yes, ghosts! – has already had multiple lives. First published in 2007 as Locke 1928 by a tiny non-profit California press, El León Literary Arts, it returned to bookshelves two years later in a new incarnation with its current title thanks to major publisher Penguin, and then resurfaced again with yet another cover last month in paperback. So many literary lives bodes well for the title’s longevity, not to mention it’s one hair-raising, haunting read.
Yes, it’s 1928 in Locke, California, a historical Chinatown founded in 1915 when Chinese immigrants who were living in nearby Walnut Grove escaped a devastating fire and decided to build a community of their own. In the midst of the annual Dragon Boat Festival, out of the black center of unexpected fog, an unfamiliar boat emerges carrying three Chinese women: “Mirage becomes real. As the boat bobs past the pier, the townspeople pick out the details that mark the women as solid: the tangled hair, the sunburnt and salt-licked skin, the hands that grip the side of the boat and expose knuckles raw and white.”
Once on land, “the real ghost stands at the center,” and she turns out to be a “faded, older version of Richard’s wife Ming Nai.” Richard, who manages the town’s gambling hall, left his brand new bride 10 years ago in his native China, giving up his true identity as Fong Man Gum to become the paper son Richard Fong in order to find riches as a Gold Mountain man.
“You should have sent for me,” she admonishes him, not understanding the restrictive U.S. immigration laws that bar even wives from joining their husbands. But now that she has somehow mysteriously, shockingly appeared, Richard must figure out how to navigate his already triangulated life, torn between his prostitute lover Chloe and his ex-lover the brothel madam Poppy who still has a raw hold on him.
The two other women who shared the boat with Ming Nai are taken in by the Chinese preacher’s “whitewoman” wife, Corlissa. One is another Gold Mountain widow, searching for her missing husband; the other is an unmarried young woman, seemingly still untethered. With so few available women, the lonely men of Locke immediately turn their attention – and even their meager riches – on the two seemingly unclaimed newcomers.
In dreamlike passages that skip years and decades, that traverse continents and vast oceans, Ryan reveals Chloe’s transcontinental past that brings her pregnant to the kitchen of Madame Poppy See. When Chloe recovers, and is claimed by Richard, she is still just a teenage girl, sneaking out to share a smoke with the rebellious town misfit, Sofia, who happens to be the preacher and Corlissa’s hapa teenage daughter.
With the trio’s arrival, what little balance begins to crumble … and the spirit world is never far, with each character living just on the edge of reality. Ryan deftly spins an eerily effective ghost story, lulling the reader with fortune-tellers’ revelations and the blood and tears of tragic lovers. Read and you shall believe …
Published: 2007 (as Locke 1928), 2009 (as Water Ghosts)