Seventeen-year-old Jade Nguyen has never forgiven her father for leaving his family in the U.S. and returning to Vietnam. Until this summer, Jade had never visited her parents’ home country, and she isn’t looking forward to the trip. But Ba has made her a deal: If she’ll spend the summer with him in the French colonial villa he’s rehabbing, he’ll give her the money she desperately needs to pay for college in the fall. So she and her younger sister make their way to Da Lat and to Nha Hoa (“Flower House”), nestled in a forest of pines. Trapped in a place that isn’t home with little in the way of companionship, Jade grudgingly works on the future bed-and-breakfast’s website.
But Nha Hoa soon reveals itself to be more than just a house: It is where Jade’s ancestors worked and toiled for French soldiers, a site of violence done in the name of duty. Jade wakes every night paralyzed and drenched in sweat as figures move on the edge of her vision. Ba works himself to the bone fixing pockmarked walls and rat-infested pipes, but the core of the house remains fetid with rot. Something is eating its way through Nha Hoa and into the minds of its inhabitants, and it refuses to remain in the shadows for much longer.
Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel, She Is a Haunting, is a welcome addition to the quickly growing canon of culturally diverse, queer horror. Jade’s story is clearly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s iconic gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, in which self-inflicted psychic damage is as tangible as any physical threat. Like Jackson, Tran mirrors Jade’s claustrophobic paranoia through setting and atmosphere. Just as Jackson’s protagonist suffers from her surreal and isolating surroundings at Hill House, so too is Jade afflicted by the oppressive humidity and unfamiliarity of Vietnam.
Jade is haunted both by actual ghosts and the specters of colonialism, which take the form of not-so-subtly racist American expats and the crumbling French villas that dot the countryside around Nha Hoa. She is plagued by visions of ruined insects and decay, and she dreams of memories that are not her own, all while attempting to keep a lid on the resentment she feels toward Ba—and herself.
Jade’s first-person narration is sometimes bogged down as she prevaricates about her feelings, which leaves some of the horror elements to fall a bit flat. Nevertheless, She Is a Haunting successfully combines the alluring aesthetic of gothic ghost stories with the complexity of contemporary immigration narratives. The result is an atmospheric horror novel that teens with a penchant for the grotesque will delight in unfolding, bit by rotting bit.