She is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran

From Storygraph: When Jade Nguyen arrives in Vietnam for a visit with her estranged father, she has one goal: survive five weeks pretending to be a happy family in the French colonial house Ba is restoring. She’s always lied to fit in, so if she’s straight enough, Vietnamese enough, American enough, she can get out with the college money he promised. // But the house has other plans. Night after night, Jade wakes up paralyzed. The walls exude a thrumming sound while bugs leave their legs and feelers in places they don’t belong. She finds curious traces of her ancestors in the gardens they once tended. And at night Jade can’t ignore the ghost of the beautiful bride who leaves cryptic warnings: Don’t eat. // Neither Ba nor her sweet sister Lily believe that there is anything strange happening. With help from a delinquent girl, Jade will prove this house—the home they have always wanted—will not rest until it destroys them. Maybe, this time, she can keep her family together. As she roots out the house’s rot, she must also face the truth of who she is and who she must become to save them all.

This is one of the strangest and most haunting books I’ve ever read. Let me start by saying that I know next to nothing about Vietnam or Vietnamese history, culture, language, etc. I went into the book knowing that there would be a lot that I didn’t understand due to my own ignorance, and this was true. On top of that, though, much of the book is rooted in a funhouse-type distortion, abstract and surreal but close enough to reality that you end up questioning your perception and understanding. What is it that I’m not catching because I’m ignorant, and what is it that is purposely skewed out of level? That made the narrative a minefield that personally, I adored, but I can see people either loving or despising it in equal measure.

However, this is not just a tale of funhouse horror. There are the true horrors that the paranormal bits help to illuminate. I may not know very much about Vietnam’s history, but I know generally about colonialism and the havoc it wreaked across the world. There is a lot in this book about colonialism – in the past, in the study of the past, in its effects on the native populations, not to mention the effects on those displaced by the violence of colonialism. There is a (white colonist) character from the history of this book who says about the Vietnamese, “They are all parasites.” Parasitic connections – symbiotic and otherwise – are a major thematic element of She is a Haunting. I found that quote to be particularly ironic, as in reality, it was the colonists who were the parasites: an invasive species, literally, who came to root out those people who lived in an area naturally.

And then, in addition to the horror elements and the historical elements, you have a story of family dynamics over the course of many generations. Families who reject, families who accept, family members who hide themselves or who walk away. Each member carries some kind of emptiness, a yearning for a place to truly belong, as they are stuck between countries, cultures, languages. There is a part that I cannot understand, where a young child is held responsible for an adult’s actions, and I don’t know if that action is understandable, or even relatable, within the culture of this family, or if it is simply a reprehensible thing that happens, as reprehensible things do. Again, all of these little elements lend themselves toward a dreamlike (or nightmarish) reading experience.

I have a few last notes that are more personal notes on reading the book. First, I loved the queer representation in the book, especially to have a bisexual narrator. Second, it felt very strange to have the parents of the narrator be younger than me, to exhibit signs of a generation after mine (like collecting Live Laugh Love-type signs). I’m used to being about the same age as the parents in YA, so now I feel even older than usual. Heh. Third, I misread a line at one point, carrying over words from the next line, but loved the misread quote so much that I kept it (emphasis on what wasn’t actually written): “The words sink in deep, more intimate than a knife in my chest.” Lastly, I want to set up and take photograph to look like that book cover, which is one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen.


About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2023, Prose, Young Adult and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to She is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran

  1. Oh that cover! It told me all I needed to know about the book: that it will be far too creepy for me to read! Though it sounds really interesting and I love the themes.

    Have you read Mexican Gothic, by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia? Sounds very similar to this one, with a creepy house used to explore family dysfunction and the legacy of colonialism. I’ve liked other books by the author, but I haven’t brought myself to be able to read this one! I’d be interested to hear what you think about it.


    • Amanda says:

      Yes! It was actually compared to Mexican Gothic in the description or somewhere on the book, and that is very, very accurate. Both are quite creepy but in unconventional ways!


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