Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

She Is a Haunting

by Trang Thanh Tran

read by Emi Ray

She Is a Haunting

by Trang Thanh Tran
read by Emi Ray

Review posted January 25, 2024.
Bloomsbury, 2023. 9 hours, 41 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#9 Teen Speculative Fiction

Okay, let’s start with some honesty: I did not enjoy listening to this audiobook.

But the reason I listened to the whole thing is that I’m on the Morris Award committee. And the reason I didn’t enjoy it was that I don’t enjoy reading horror, and this book creeped me out. Once I’m done, I have to admit that this book was really well-written. So I’m writing up my thoughts *before* any discussion with the committee to see if I can articulate what was good about it. (I am pretty sure that others in the committee, who actually like horror, will probably find even more things than I do, but I want to be clear that I’m writing this before any discussion, so these are my initial impressions only.) I’ll also say that I listened to this one for the sake of time, but if it is a contender, I’ll be reading it in print form as well. But all this is to say that if you read Sonderbooks because your reading preferences match mine, think twice about this one. It is really well-written, though.

And also to be honest, by the time I was done with it, I’m glad to have read it.

[Note: Yes, this was one of our Finalists, and I read it again in print form. I enjoyed it more the second time, knowing what to expect. And wow, the way she gradually builds the creepiness and dread and works in themes of colonialism... It's just so good.]

Okay, here’s the set up: Jade Nguyen is in Vietnam for five weeks in a deal to get her long-estranged father to pay for her first year of college.

He left them years ago, and Jade didn’t want anything to do with him. But her mother is working too hard already, and she turned to Ba for tuition money. He used that as leverage to get her to spend time with him in the decrepit French colonial house he’s renovating to be a bed and breakfast. He also requires her to work on the website for the house, along with Florence, the niece of his business partner. Ba wants Jade to be friends with Florence, and she resists, but then when she finds herself attracted thinks that’s one more thing her parents could hold against her. Jade’s sister Lily is there with them, too. Lily is actually happy to be with their father. And their father reveals that his grandmother was once a servant in this very house. Their ancestors planted the hydrangeas that abundantly bloom to this day.

The horror builds gradually. First there are piles of dead bugs in her bedroom and some kind of insect leg in her mouth when she awakes. Then she begins having dreams – and waking up paralyzed, still seeing awful things, unable to move.

Jade meets a white couple who are investing in the house, thrilled about the Frenchwoman who once lived here while her husband was in the army.

That gives Jade a name to the red-haired ghost she’s been seeing. But there’s another ghost, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, who begins sharing her memories with Jade. The Frenchwoman called all Vietnamese people parasites – and parasites are a theme in the house. The Vietnamese ghost warns Jade not to eat anything in the house, but can she really keep the parasites at bay?

I liked that Jade had a reason to stay – she needs the money for college. And when that motivation is not enough, she needs to try to protect her sister. The horror builds gradually and the house becomes harder and harder to escape.

I also liked that themes were naturally built into the story rather than spelled out. For example, once when out doing things with Florence, Jade gets upset with herself that she doesn’t speak fluent Vietnamese. It’s a natural way to show us how she feels torn between the two cultures. This author is good at subtleties like that.

So if you like well-written books and can handle some horror, this book is one you shouldn’t miss. I’m not sure if this book will end up getting honored by our committee, but it’s a strong debut. [Added later: This was one of the earliest books I'd read. At the end of the year, it still stood out.]