I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of She Is A Haunting by Trang Tranh Tran. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In She Is A Haunting, Jade Nguyen has made a deal with her father—come stay at his home in Vietnam for one summer, and he’ll give her enough money to start college. Despite the fact that she resents her father for leaving the family a few years ago, she agrees; she needs the money, after all. But upon arrival at the house, she starts to notice strange things. Dead bugs appear on her windowsill constantly, there’s thumping in the walls, she suffers sleep paralysis every night, and then the figures appear. One, a red-haired woman with an unclear agenda, the other a Vietnamese bride who warns Jade not to eat anything in the house. When she tries to talk about any of this, Jade’s father and little sister don’t believe her. So Jade teams up with the daughter of a family friend to prove that this place is haunted, but the more she learns, the more she realizes just how much danger they are all in.
As you probably know, horror is not generally my thing, but since this book is young adult, I figured I could handle it. And surprisingly, I quite liked this book!
The atmosphere is fantastic. You feel the same discomfort Jade does, faced with the humid summer heat and eerie sounds she can’t tell if she’s imagining. The house is so well-described, and as you read, you feel each creak and groan of the walls. It’s so eerie.
The writing style generally, not just related to setting, is also really good. Tran has a way of making even grotesque things and conflicted thoughts sound poetic in a way, and you get the sense that every word choice is deliberate. There are asides throughout the book, between Jade’s chapters, that seem to be from the house’s perspective. These were a little disorientating and hard to comprehend, but added a cool layer to the story anyway.
A lot of the haunting of the house is steeped in colonialism, which I thought was fascinating. The ramifications of French, and later American, presence in Vietnam touch every wall of the house and every choice of the ghosts. It was fascinating to see, through Jade’s research, about this aspect of history that I didn’t know much about. And Jade’s struggles with being Vietnamese by blood and American by upbringing were sympathetic.
The characters, too, are quite good. Jade makes for a great protagonist, someone you root for but also someone with a lot of flaws and depth. Her relationships with her sister Lily and her father are complex and difficult, creating a web of tension that adds to the supernatural plot in creative ways. I loved the plot twist—if that’s the right word—concerning her father’s connection to the house. I also enjoyed the scenes with Florence, the girl Jade asks for help. She had a lot of personality and was probably my favorite character.
Some of the action toward the end, in terms of the supernatural elements, got kind of confusing for me, though. I think it’s partly due to the writing style and partly due to the plot itself. This isn’t really a bad thing, though, because it just contributes to the feeling of unsettled disorientation that Jade is feeling. And honestly, this is one of those books that would reveal even more of its sharp edges and intriguing dark corners if it is read more than once.
In the end, She Is A Haunting is one of the strongest debut novels I’ve read in a while. It’s creepy and bizarre and enthralling. The themes of familial strife, queer identity, and how colonization can cause such deep harm are all fantastic. The characters and their bonds are great, as is the action. Though this is written for a young adult audience, the writing style elevates it from other books in that age range, and anyone from late teens and on can read this. It’s so weird, but I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to seeing what else this author writes!
She is a Haunting will be available on February 28th, 2023!