Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan is a poetically written story about a small town, Locke, near Sacramento, California in the year 1928.
Three Chinese women inexplicably appear out of the mist one afternoon (ghosts!), one of whom claims to be married to Richard Fong, who happens to manage the local gambling parlor, and who is having an affair with one of the local prostitutes. Richard left his wife, Ming Wai, 10 years earlier in China to come to America to work, and instead of trying to bring her to America (though it would have admittedly been very expensive), he sends her money and enjoys the single life in Locke.
Chloe, a prostitute and Richard’s lover, is interested in Sofia Lee, the preacher’s daughter. This is a dangerous triangle as Richard is a jealous lover and Sofia is…the preacher’s daughter. Lesbian relationships = not good in 1928.
The brothel madam, Poppy See, is in love with Richard and used to be his lover, so she pines for the day when they will be lovers once again. She is also psychic and has premonitions. Her premonitions are not very hopeful once the water ghosts arrive.
I hustled to finish this book before I went to see the author at Book Passage. I was even more motivated to see the author when I realized I really wasn’t understanding the book. I mean, it’s not like she used huge words I couldn’t understand, but I felt like the story meandered and I really didn’t get where the ghosts came in. When I read the book, there were no ghosts.
Getting to talk to the author made me appreciate and understand the book a lot more, and even made me want to re-read the book so I could look at it with a new understanding (though re-reading a book right now is out of the question based on other commitments I have).
After talking to the author, a lot of things clicked for me in the book. I finally understood that water ghosts are a Chinese myth, though since that wasn’t explained in the book, that whole portion of the story went right over my head. That’s why I was so confused that this was touted as a ghost story, for as far as I could tell, there were no ghosts in the story, because my idea of ghosts and the Chinese tradition of ghosts are two different things. That being said, I think something at the beginning of the book explaining water ghosts would have been beneficial to the reader.
Also, while the prose is very poetic and beautiful…so was The English Patient‘s, and I guess I’m finding out that poetic prose just doesn’t do it for me. BUT! If you’re into very atmospheric books or poetic and flowery prose, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.
Rating: 79 out of 100