Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Water Ghosts--Shawna Yang Ryan (Book Review)

I don't like ghost stories. So, what was I doing reading a book called Water Ghosts? I blame Shawna Yang Ryan and Twitter.

First of all, @Penguinpress offered out a few review copies on Twitter. When I checked into the title, I found that Ryan, a Taiwanese American, had set the story in 1928 in Locke, California, the only U.S. city built entirely by and for Chinese immigrants. And me with my Diversity challenge! Plus, I'm a sucker for small towns and their histories: the nearly-forgotten stories, the houses that are named for people long gone (just, not so much the haunted ones).

Actually, the ghost part wasn't too "whooooooooooo" for me. Water ghosts are a part of Chinese folklore, so that aspect tied together really well with the way so many of the characters cut themselves off from their homes and families in order to seek out a new life.

And now (she says with a flourish of her magic handkerchief), I shall take Water Ghosts through the five questions from Mitali Perkin's article, as assigned by me on Diversity Roll Call (be sure to check out the other posts on this topic, they're fascinating!).

1. Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true?
The white characters and the Chinese characters are equally flawed. You've got your brothel run by a Chinese psychic woman with white prostititutes. You've got your your imperfect (Chinese) preacher with his imperfect (white) wife and their imperfect (both) daughter. And your Chinese creepy-women who smell bad and leave weird white dust behind them wherever they go.

2. How and why does the author define race?
Interesting question. It's a Chinese-built town, and the ties to China are crucial to the plot. But what about the caucasian characters? Would it be the same novel if everyone was Chinese? I think it would work either way. The inter-relations between the two groups make for a more complex story, though, and the presence of Chloe, a white prostitute, makes the theme of disconnection from one's roots more global, rather than just a statement about the roots of Chinese American cultures. Chloe's family is close enough for her to run into her brother in a movie theater, and yet they are strangers.

3. Is the cover art true to the story?
Yes, it's spooky and ethereal, and has some chinese characters or something? (My version doesn't have the red ink). There aren't any people in it.

4. Who solves the problems in the story?
I don't think I can answer this without giving away too much of the story, but it's definitely not a case of white people swooping in and solving the Chinese immigrants' problems. The people who do swoop do more shaking things up than solving problems.

5. How is beauty defined?
I'm sure there are places where the characters are described, but at the moment I can't find them! And yet, I could picture each of them perfectly. Here's a description of Richard, through former-lover Poppy's eyes--never does she refer to his looks, and yet (in the context of knowing he's a 38-year-old Chinese man in 1928), can't you just see him?: "Scents spin off his body, so strong they are almost visible to her--the slick, wax smell of Bryllcream in his hair; the sweat coming through his suit; body scent, unrelieved by soap and cologne, that lingers behind his ears and in the lines of his throat." Have I mentioned the writing is beautiful? It is.

The Soundtrack: The Chinese Blues was written in 1915, but to me this ragtime song sounds like exactly what you'd hear coming out of Richard's gambling hall, The Lucky Fortune. [Edit. 6/3/09: For more songs related to Water Ghosts, see the playlist Shawna Ryan created for music blog Largehearted Boy.]


  1. Ooo yes that passage is beautiful. Wonderful analysis here. Sounds like you had a good time with this book.

  2. I had not heard of this book. It sounds really interesting! I am a sucker for a good Asian cultural story! I loved reading your answers to the questions, especially #2.

  3. The writing does sound beautiful, the quote you included was better than most physical descriptions!

    My library has this book on order and I'm so excited to be the first person on the waiting list :)

  4. Joanne, being the first on the library waiting list is one of the unexpected benefits that goes along with book blogging, isn't it?

    Rebecca, I've really been enjoying the cultural stories/memoirs lately, too, as you may have noticed!

    Summer, thank you. I wasn't sure at first if these questions would work for this book, and they turned out to be kind of an interesting new way to format the review.