Water Ghosts- Shawna Yang Ryan (review)
If you’ve ever been to Locke, California (sometimes known as the last self-contained Chinatown in America), it’s an easy place to miss from the roadside partly because the town’s buildings are so unremarkable. More than anything, you remember the combined sensation of heat, fog, and the persistent presence of mildew from being so close to the Sacramento River. One result is that the place has an ethereal quality that photographers and painters often pick up. Thousands of Chinese passed through this refuge, yet they remain just a bit out of our reach. Locke is more felt than seen.
First and foremost Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Water Ghosts (formerly Locke 1928) gets this right. Her vision of Locke stands outside of time. She describes buildings, plants, a church service, a celebration in a gambling hall, but they feel less than permanent. Ryan achieves this by focusing her energies on literally writing from inside her characters’ skins. She describes in great detail what they hear, see, how they bleed, cough to the point where the novel frequently feels claustrophobic. You don’t just see and hear what they hear, you are seeing and feeling what they see and hear intensely. It wasn’t until the middle of the novel that I noticed how little conventional narration there is to provide “perspective” about time, place, or events within the town in the broader sense. Not many writers can manage this and even fewer can sustain the “unsettled” mood that soaks the pages of Water Ghosts.
The second interesting choice Ryan made was to take the fact that Locke the town was a place where men generally outnumbered women 20 to 1 and to look at it though the lens of the 1. Richard Fong, the manager of the Lucky Fortune, one of the town’s gambling halls, who either escaped to California or stays to support his Chinese family, serves as the nominal “hub” of the plot. Despite that, Ryan’s real focus is on the various women who see Richard (Fong Man Gum) as Locke’s alpha male. These include - Chloe, a white prostitute who is a favorite of Richard’s and whose family is just a few miles away in Sacramento - Poppy, the Chinese madame of the local brothel who worked for her position after being the victim of a disastrous arranged marriage– the minister’s wife and daughter – and Ming Wai, Richard’s Chinese wife who suddenly appears in Locke on a raft with two other mysterious women. Ryan explores the capacity of these women to endure and survive in a town where few intact families existed, but birth and death go on.
Water Ghosts is beautifully and hauntingly written. At the same time, it’s not a breezy read nor was it meant to be one. It seems intent on getting the feel of Locke right. Ryan stayed there for some thirty days to absorb the place. I suspect it was time well spent and was critical to her ability to catch Locke. It never was a simple place. Instead Locke was the sort of American town where dreams, ghosts, and forgotten promises coexisted on equal footing with what most of us think of as day to day life. Water Ghosts makes certain that we get the town’s essence.
I look forward to Ryan’s next book which I understand focuses on Taiwan in 1927.