Past runs through present in 'Water Ghosts'

By Robert Braile
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2009
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On a languid June morning in 1928, the mouth of the Sacramento River shrouded in mist, three desolate Chinese women suddenly appear on a small boat off the shore of Locke, Calif., a farming village.

Their mysterious arrival sends a shudder through the community, a remote place of sin and sanctity hard on the delta, where Chinese immigrants are forging new lives in a new land. But they remain steeped in the mythologies of their native country, which pull them relentlessly into their pasts. To these immigrants, the women are ominous.

In her notably assured debut, "Water Ghosts," Shawna Yang Ryan explores the uneasy confluence of assimilation and ancestry in the lives of these immigrants. Their pasts ultimately prevail, returning like ghosts and circulating like water, shaping their lives in ways good and bad but always fated. These are foretold lives, predestined to be what they have been.

They are also interwoven lives. One woman, Ming Wai, is the wife of gambling hall manager Richard Fong. He left her behind in China 10 years ago, rapt with stories of America and seeking to "remake himself all the way to the core" rather than take over his father's shoe sole business. He has since had an affair with brothel owner Poppy See and is now seeing one of her prostitutes, Chloe Howell, a white teenager.

The triangulation of Richard's relationships is further complicated when Chloe and another teenager, Sofia Lee, fall in love. Sofia is the rebellious daughter of Chinese preacher Howar Lee and his white wife, Corlissa, a troubled couple who take in the other boat women, Sai Fung and So Wai. So Wai is also searching for her husband.

Ryan is artful in examining matters of race, class, gender, sexual preference, and culture, resisting the doctrinaire and prescriptive in her writing, and avoiding any politicization of the issues. Her prose undulates gracefully, exuding an impressionistic, almost hallucinogenic mood, as if the story is taking place in a dream.

"But you didn't have these words - only a faint sense of the image and the feeling that arose. You couldn't even really think about your pulse, as you felt it in your chest and neck and wrist and thighs, or what your skin-flush in the spring morning sun meant, because this you had never even conceived of: that a girl could love a girl," the narrator says, describing in a provocative shift to the second-person point of view Sofia's feelings upon first seeing Chloe. The novel is otherwise told in third-person vignettes.

As elegant are the ways in which the past reclaims the present. Ryan's subtle use of water and ghosts as intertwined motifs of the ancestral is drawn from Chinese myths and deftly crafted, while her vignettes from prior years are seamlessly placed.

The novel pulses, with the past continually surging against the present until the present yields. In "Water Ghosts," Ryan has distinguished herself as a writer to watch.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.


By Shawna Yang Ryan

Penguin, 259 pp., $22.95