BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – There’s nothing quite like finding out your house is very much alive and wants to consume you.
Vietnamese American teenager, Jade Nguyen, lands in Vietnam with her younger sister Lily for the heroic purpose of surviving five weeks with her estranged father, with whom she’s struck a deal to help fix his French colonial-era house in the countryside for college tuition money. Jade has never fit in anywhere. A stranger in America, the land of her upbringing, and a stranger in Vietnam, her motherland. Not straight enough, not Vietnamese enough, and certainly not American enough. The house, a powerful being in its own right – and wrong – senses an alien intruder on its doorstep. It begins to ingest Jade – body and mind – in this slow-burn, Vietnamese gothic horror.
She Is A Haunting (2023) is the debut novel of Vietnamese American author Trang Thanh Tran who writes in her native English. Tran has managed to brilliantly metaphorize internal colonization and its intergenerational impact through the haunting of Nhà Hoa, a stunning yet tormented home in Vietnam’s colorful countryside. While it boasts a grand Parisian build, and impeccably tasteful décor, the naïve occupants remain oblivious to the ghosts that roam its corridors. Faceless, nameless, and abused Vietnamese workers who formerly owned the home prior to the French invasion yearn for remembrance. Lights go off, cries can be heard in the dead of night, and insect carcasses pile up around the home. Perfectly fine food begins to rot. No one can sleep. Death follows like a shadow, never too far away.
Jade may not be able to speak Vietnamese well enough. Still, she understands the historical and modern relationships between French Indochine, as it was labeled, and Western countries quite well, perhaps precisely because she was raised abroad. She sees things as they are: her father fixing up a French colonial house only to rent it out to ungrateful, wealthy Westerners. Tran wants their readers to be privy to the atrocities of the past and also modern colonialism that exists in covert forms – Americans buying out prime Vietnamese real estate with the plan to rent it out on Airbnb and similar platforms while abusing their property’s original owners. Things take a shattering turn when Jade discovers how cruelly her own ancestors suffered at Nhà Hoa.
Jade’s savior arrives in the form of a sarcastic, snarky Vietnamese teenage girl named Florence. Together, the two teach each other their native tongues and design Nhà Hoa’s website for a grand opening celebration to come. Lust and affection simmer between the lines. Jade, marred by the trauma of growing up queer in a conservative home, is afraid to make the first move – especially since she has hardly come to brand herself as queer in her own lengthy soul-seeking monologues. Sometimes defaulting to simplicity is by far the easier route: “Who am I but someone others define? It’s easier to be a stereotype. It hurts when you are yourself.” Can we blame her?
Jade, the odd one out in every room, senses strange occurrences. In her sleep paralysis, she sees a stunning yet eerie ghost of the home’s former occupant – a young Vietnamese bride named Cam, forcibly married to a French soldier and made to live with his cruel, bigoted sister, Marion. Cam leaves Jade cryptic, recurring messages like “don’t eat.” The house, however, has other plans. Jade, unable to sleep, begins to wonder: “This house. The ghosts. Who is eating whom?” An endless haunting is one nightmarish way a bloody, forgotten history seeks revenge.
Following a slow descent into utter chaos and madness, the mysterious origin of the spirits starts to come into focus. Readers are given chapters entirely written from the Nhà Hoa’s perspective in puzzling yet poetic intervals, where we begin to understand the greater plan at hand: “There might not be a hell for houses, but this house never lets a scrap go to waste.” Everyone is in danger: Ba, Lily, Jade, and Florence.
Around the corner are jumpscares worthy of an indie horror film adaptation. Scenic and vacation-inspiring tropics juxtaposed with decrepit relics of a tortured history make punchy but potent statements. Jade is a layered character with many faults – a jaded hero. Nevertheless, we root for the queer underdog and the loveable partner-in-crime. Together, they just might solve the past’s dark secrets buried deep within the rotting panels of Nhà Hoa. Jade’s father may even redeem himself in the eyes of both his daughters and the hungry ghosts tormenting them. She Is A Haunting is, without a spectral shadow of a doubt, a deliciously disturbing summer read to add to your A-list. A house of horrors that makes for a riveting read – but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.