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GHOST TOWN by Kevin Chen


by Kevin Chen translated by Darryl Sterk

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-60945-798-3
Publisher: Europa Editions

A haunted family saga from a winner of the Taiwan Literature Award for Books.

“It’s Ghost Festival today, the Day of Deliverance. The ghosts are coming. I’ve come back, too.” This is what Keith Chen says to his lover as Keith stands in front of the house where he grew up. Or, rather, this is what Keith would say if his lover were by his side—if his lover was still alive. Keith is returning to his backward, backwater hometown after spending time in a German prison for killing that lover. He’s seeking memories, but not all of the memories he encounters are welcome ones, and he and his family are surrounded by unquiet spirits—and, although still living, are unquiet spirits themselves, haunting their own lives. Running beneath the whole narrative is the secret story of the death of Keith’s lover. The ideas that Chen (the author, not the character) is playing with are familiar to anyone who has read Gothic literature—from Wuthering Heights to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). And there are moments when Chen creates a truly eerie atmosphere. One of the many characters who narrates this novel—himself a ghost—describes all of Yongjing awakening as his wife and the other women of the town chant during an impromptu morning ritual: “The ghosts in the public cemetery all woke up, too, as did the weeds, the tree snags, and the fallowed fields, along with the molds, the rice stalks, and the wildflowers. All the living, the dead, and the living who wished they were dead in that small town were woken rudely up.” But, despite the diversity of narrators, there isn’t much diversity of voice—a lack of interiority makes it difficult to distinguish one character from another—and most of this story is told in a flat, expository style that is, ultimately, wearying. There is something initially powerful in the way that Chen presents cruelty as commonplace, but this stylistic choice quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns. It seems likely that most readers will either become anesthetized to the brutality or simply quit reading.

Chen’s exploration of generational trauma is both too much and not enough.