Mandahla: Water Ghosts

Locke is a real place on the Sacramento River, founded in 1915 after a fire broke out in the Chinese section of nearby Walnut Grove--the Chinese left and brokered a deal to build a town in the delta and work in the pear orchards and asparagus fields. From this piece of almost-forgotten history, Shawna Yang Ryan has written a mystical, lyrical, gritty novel that is absolutely mesmerizing. In 1928, Richard Fong is a gambling house manager, who had left his wife Ming Wei 10 years earlier to seek his fortune in America. His lover, Chloe, is a "whitegirl" prostitute in Poppy See's brothel. Sofia, daughter of a Chinese minister and a whitewoman, is in love with Chloe, as much as a young teenager can be. One day, during a river festival, in the middle of unusual weather, three women appear on a boat out of a bank of fog and dark skies, three women who soon upset the town. One of them is Richard's wife, Ming Wei; the other two quickly become the object of overwhelming and sadly comical male attentions. While this may sound like a soap opera, it is anything but; instead, it's a story of longing and deprivation, of water ghosts and lonely men, of marriage promises and dashed dreams.

The novel moves from America to China and back, between 1928 and 1865, entwining memory, myth and reality. Ryan is adept with details that define character--Richard keeps his hair longer than fashion because it shows the luxury to wash and brush it. Sofia and Chloe, when they cross paths during the day, perform a delicate dance of brushed sleeves and public indifference. Poppy not only sees the future but discovers she can smell the dead stealing life from the living. When Corlissa, the preacher's wife, teaches the two new women penmanship, "[her] alphabet is nearly all lines and angles, while they manage to soften the letters, make them glide like arched bird bodies." The reality of a Chinese immigrant's life is summed up in Uncle Happy: "He has been thinking of opium, the occasional ball of it pressed into the bowl of his pipe. The intense desire followed by guilt and an impassioned letter home, yet another for his wife [he has] not seen since 1866."

Water Ghosts is, simply, exquisite writing--"the startled egrets stretch their wings and lift up like incandescent sheets being shaken to dry"--ethereal and rough, mysterious and earthy. This is a book to seek out and to treasure.--Marilyn Dahl



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