Trang Thanh Tran, She is a haunting, Bloomsbury, April 2023, 383 pp., RRP $17.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781526657084
The saying goes ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but the creepy image on the cover of She is a Haunting accurately depicts the atmosphere of Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel.
Jade Nguyen’s estranged father is renovating an historic French colonial house in Đà Lạt, Vietnam to transform it into a bed and breakfast. Long left to rot in the humid Vietnam climate, this house was once a grand villa, one of the first to be built by the French, and the place where Jade’s great grandmother lived and worked as domestic help for the racist and evil Madam Marion DuMont.
Jade, her younger siblings and mother all live in Philadelphia, and this is the first time her mother has returned to Vietnam in decades, and while her mother and brother stay in Saigon with family, Jade has reluctantly agreed to accompany her sister Lily to spend five weeks with her father, ostensibly to design a booking website for the renovated mansion, and secretly to receive from her father the money she needs to pay for her college tuition fees. Since Jade’s father deserted the family in the US to return to Vietnam years previously, their relationship has been strained to say the least; paying for her college fees is the least he can do, she reasons.
So far, so normal. However, the house, Nha Hoa is anything but. Strange dreams and disturbing experiences begin for Jade as soon as she arrives, but her father refuses to listen when Jade tells him the house is creepy; she wants to leave, but she needs the money. So Jade decides to teach her father a lesson by staging a haunting – one that is quickly eclipsed by the house itself and the spirits it will not let rest.
She is a Haunting is more than just a ghost story. Told from the perspective of Jade, who is wrestling with misplaced guilt about her father’s decision to leave the family, her struggles with coming out about her sexuality, her worry for her mother as well as the challenges of being caught between two cultural spheres, this story is full (in fact, sometimes too full) of themes and storylines. This left me more often than not confused, wishing that there were fewer ideas that could be delved into more deeply. The concept is strong – the voice of young, queer individuals from the Vietnamese diaspora should be heard, and the horror elements are suitably visceral and vivid – however there is just too much going on to pack a real punch. The narrative is also hampered by slow pacing, which suddenly rockets to an unsatisfying ending that leaves the reader wondering what actually happened.
Students 14 years and older, especially those who seek out the horror genre, will be drawn in, and while some will love the story, others will find the slow pace frustrating, and it may end up on the ‘did not finish’ pile. Nonetheless, Trang Thanh Tran is an author to watch. One to consider when developing a diverse high school library collection.
Reviewed by Kay Oddone