Kate’s Review: “She Is a Haunting”

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Book: “She Is a Haunting” by Trang Thanh Tran

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, February 2023

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished copy from the publisher.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Description: A house with a terrifying appetite haunts a broken family in this atmospheric horror, perfect for fans of Mexican Gothic.

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 her 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 her family has 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.

Review: Thank you to Bloomsbury YA for sending me a finished copy of this novel!

Gothic horror is a sub genre that I really enjoy, and a lot of the time the haunted house tale can fall into that definition. But I think that a lot of people fall into the trap of expecting a Gothic haunted house tale to be very Western in style and theme, probably thanks to images of tormented white women lost in the moors as they are haunted by ghosts, ennui, and possibly mental instability. Because of that I’m always eager to read non-Western takes on Gothic haunted house stories, and “She Is a Haunting” by Trang Thanh Tran really caught my eye when a promo of it ended up in my inbox. Given that my knowledge of Vietnamese history is pretty limited, the idea of a haunted French Colonial home in Vietnam REALLY clinched it for me. I was really excited to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint.

The horror elements are on point basically right out the gate. As Lily settles in at the isolated, French Colonial house her Ba has taken on for refurbishing in Đà Lạt, Vietnam, it’s almost immediately off. Lily already doesn’t want to be there, as she harbors a resentment for her father for leaving her family in the States when he returned to Vietnam, as well as his coldness to her when he discovered that she is attracted to girls. So she is already in a suffocating mindset, but then Nhà Hoa, or Flower House, is hot and humid, seems to be infested with dying bugs, and just feels unsettled. Tran gets the unease off on the right foot, and as Jade starts experiencing sleep paralysis and having visions of a ghostly woman inside the house, the tension builds and the horror imagery pops. There were a number of moments and bits in this book that just made me shiver, or even gag a little bit because of the nasty descriptions involving bugs, or food, or a little of both. Jade as a character is a little caustic at times, but she’s well explored enough that I worried about her as things get more and more spooky and disgusting during her investigation of the house and its history.

But it’s the themes of colonialism, racism, and generational trauma that really made this one stand out for me. These kinds of themes make metaphors ripe for the picking, and Tran really emphasizes the terrible ways that French colonialism disrupted and destroyed the lives of Vietnamese people. Nhà Hoa has a dark history that is being romanticized to make for a charming historical bed and breakfast, propping up the French style and story of the family that lived there, but left behind is the story of Jade’s Ba’s family, that worked in the house under terrible conditions, and the mysterious ghost bride whose connection to the house is lost to history. The French family that build the home is remembered fondly, so much so that the investors that Ba has on board for the B and B fawn over the history of the couple that lived there, while the couple was using and discarding the Ba’s ancestors, and because of the exploitation that reverberated through the generations he now feels like he has to keep up a connection to this house and to prop up this history, much to Jade’s horror as she finds the dark history and abuses that occurred in the house. It may not be super unique for a horror story about colonialism to have metaphors regarding an unrelenting haunting and a house that seems to have a constant hunger and need to consume, but Tran’s talent is that they can bring these metaphors to life with the aforementioned well executed horror moments, making the supernatural and real life horrors leap off the page in the most disturbing ways. It’s really well done.

“She Is a Haunting” is scary, uncompromising, and deeply unsettling. Fans of haunted house tales, take note. This is one you are going to want to check out.

Rating 8: Disturbing horror and a searing critique of colonialism, “She Is a Haunting” is scary and unrelenting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Is a Haunting” is included on the Goodreads list “Queer Horror”, and “Asian Folklore/Mythology/Influence”.

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