15 May 2009

Water Ghosts

I received a copy of Water Ghosts via a drawing on Twitter from PenguinPress/PenguinUSA. Let me tell you, I might not have picked this novel up since I've already got so much on my plate but I'm very glad that receiving a copy gratis forced me to read it right away. It is beautiful.

Shawna Yang Ryan's debut novel is a beautiful, heartbreaking look at a forgotten segment of American history. Every one of Ryan's characters - Corlissa, Sophia, Richard, Howar, Chloe, Poppy, Ming Wai - has been lovingly rendered to the point that the prose of the novel becomes tactile, almost real. You can taste the salt Ming Wai leaves behind, feel the heaviness of the air as Corlissa works; a major sensory focus of the writing is smell and scent. The book covers a space of only a few months in 1928 but the narrative loops back and forth, like interconnected short stories, and changes narrators when convenient so that all the stories are eventually brought to the reader's attention. Intertwined with the story of the boat women are tales from Chinese folklore and mythology and this contributes to the "ghost story" feel of the novel. There is also an ethereal quality to the work but instead of floating in air it's like floating under water, like the rippling of silk; the characters struggle to float free of their pasts, to avoid sinking under the town of Locke, California. While the political climate and laws of immigration in 1928 are not directly a focus of the narrative, ideas regarding sexuality, morality, racism, and culture lie beneath the characters' stories; the whitegirl brothel, the lack of ethnic Chinese women among the immigrant community (only merchants could obtain a visa to bring a wife to the US from China), the mix of Christian ideology with Chinese tradition, and the notion of honor all come to play in the novel. I particularly enjoyed Ryan's debut novel (originally published as Locke 1928 by El Leon) and I hope her next published work isn't very far in the future.

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