Shawna Yang Ryan, Water Ghosts
Publisher: Penguin Books
2010, 272 pages, paperback, $15

WHEN I WAS a kid I was more than a little afraid of ghosts. In an effort to keep me inside after sunset and away from wildcats that lived in the woods across from our property, my mother convinced me my aunt’s ghost roamed in our backyard at night. She had my best interest at heart, but having been cursed with a vivid imagination, I conjured up images of spectral relations lurking in our oak trees who were waiting for the moment I’d sneak outside so they could swoop down, snatch my spirit, and increase the ghost army that certainly surveilled the living.

As someone who fantasized about all the ways I could outsmart the elusive spirits, one might assume I spent my time holed up in a Sunday school classroom reading Little House on the Prairie books and saying my prayers. In reality, I sought out ghost stories and true crime exposés and watched more than my fair share of horror movies, all the while palm-sweatingly aware I would have been better off tucked safely in my bed. As an adult, I’m no less intrigued by the need to confront the murky unknown, and recently, I had the good fortune to read Shawna Yang Ryan’s Water Ghosts, a short novel that explores the many borders people construct to lend order to their lives and the struggles these people encounter when the protective borders get in the way of living fully.

Set in the 1920s in Locke, California, a small Chinese farming town along the Sacramento River, Water Ghosts revolves around the appearance of three Chinese women who float into town during the annual Dragon Boat Festival. One of the mysterious women reunites with her estranged husband, Richard Fong, who’d gone to America years earlier to earn money for them. She quickly moves in with Fong and proceeds to transform him from an independent bachelor into an emotionally erratic wreck. The town’s minister and wife, Corlissa, take in the remaining women and attempt to assimilate them to immigrant culture and prepare them for potential suitors. The townspeople badger the family with questions about their guests’ journey, but whenever Corlissa asks the women about their pre-Locke life, they coyly sidestep and paint a blurry picture of their origins.

From the first pages, Water Ghosts teems with numerous binary oppositions, the most important derived from the basic human need to separate what constitutes the sacred from the profane and the problems that emerge when that which is deemed earthy (the mysterious women) might actually be supernatural. Yang reflects the impending collapse between the sacred and profane most clearly when she offers scenes set in the town’s church after the women’s arrival. During the women’s first church service when men from all over the region shove their way inside for a glimpse of the newcomers, the omniscient narrator remarks that “hymnbooks turn into fans… The Jesus on the cross on the wall sweats, the wood gaining the luminescence of trees in the rain.” Later in the novel, an anonymous man who’s wooing the two mysterious women leaves a note for the preacher who’s caring for them. He writes, “Brother Lee: Song of Songs 8:7: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly contemned.” This lovesick man’s words reverberate for the reader when Richard’s very life is in jeopardy during the historic Sacramento Delta flood that washes through the novel’s final pages. The book opens with a prologue focused on a fire in San Francisco and rises to its closing action during Hungry Ghost Festival when river waters submerge the entire town.

Water Ghosts examines the sacred and the profane, allowing for its dream-like language and the possibility for full-on ghost sightings to deal with the liminal space between the living and the dead. Ultimately, the ghosts mediate the space between the spiritual and the bodily, becoming the critical connection between Locke’s community and its Chinese heritage. As soon as you have time, seek out this novel. Even if you’re not obsessed with the multifarious and magical elements of ghosts, Yang’s gorgeous, sensual language will pull you into a dream you’ll wish would never end.

—Gwynne Middleton