Alex Brown Reviews She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

She Is a Haunting, Trang Thanh Tran (Blooms­bury Children’s Books 978-1-54761-081-5, $15.17. 352pp, hc) February 2023.

My review copy of Trang Thanh Tran’s YA horror debut She Is a Haunting com­pared it to Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexi­can Gothic and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After. Having read (and loved) both, I am here to say that is one of the most perfect set of comps I’ve ever seen.

Desperate to attend the college of her dreams but short on funds, Jade accepts a deal offered by the father who abandoned her family years before. If she helps him renovate Nhà Hoa, a century-old French colonial mansion in Vietnam, he’ll give her enough money to cover the first year of col­lege. So, while her mother and brother stay with their relatives elsewhere in Vietnam, Jade and her younger sister travel out to Đà Lạt. She’s ready to bail before she even arrives, but is determined to get what she feels like she’s owed and give as little in return as possible.

Almost immediately things go wrong. Mysteri­ous things keep happening, dead bugs keep appear­ing, and something is terrorizing Jade at night. Her father is hiding something important about the house and his connection to it. Colonizers infect the walls. Spirits wander the halls and whisper warnings and threats. She has Florence, the cute daughter of her father’s business partner, to keep her sane, but it’s not enough. The two of them concoct a ridiculous plan to escape, but the house and its dead inhabitants do not want to let them go.

On the familial level, this is a story about being broken and breaking others in response. Nothing about this world is as simple as black and white. Every character here is shades of gray. Characters make mistakes and refuse to own up to them, then demand accountability when other people make their own mistakes. Jade is hurt by her deadbeat dad and takes every opportunity to hurt him back. Her ire is not misplaced; he manipulates her, lies to her, keeps secrets from her, and shunts all of the blame and responsibility for his absence on her despite him making his own adult decisions. Per­haps learning from her father, Jade makes similar mistakes with her mother, siblings, and friends (the last in part because she’s still figuring out her bisexuality and is still mostly closeted). She lashes out and obfuscates as much as she pines and prom­ises. It’s tempting to place her in Cam’s role and her father in Marion’s, but really they’re both Cam, just in different ways. Cường is first enthralled then trapped by a violent act of colonialism he cannot control or even temper. Jade sacrifices her dignity for her family’s financial benefit, then finds herself in the same colonial mousetrap.

Let’s be clear here: the imperial machine is the root of all evil in She Is a Haunting. It’s what drives Cường to return to Nhà Hoa and what lured his ancestors to it decades before. It’s what killed Cam years before she died and what soured Marion’s soul. It’s what makes Jade feel like ‘‘a tourist in the country where [her] parents were born.’’ It’s what takes Florence away from her family and dump­ing her at an American boarding school and what drives a wedge between Cường and his siblings. The rot of colonialism sticks to Alma and Thomas like a second skin. For them it’s armor, privilege, and a weapon. They thrive on being the benefi­ciaries of colonial power as much as wielding that power over others.

All of this is blended together with Tran’s visceral and atmospheric descriptions. There was a little too much body horror and gross insect stuff for my taste, but at the same time I couldn’t look away. The story is brutal, but no more than a story about the horrors of colonial violence deserves.

I am so excited by not only the resurgence of YA horror in recent years, but the expansion of it into stories and experiences we’ve never seen in YA horror before. She Is a Haunting fits wonderfully next to last year’s vicious The Getaway by Lamar Giles, The Honeys by Ryan La Sala, Direwood by Catherine Yu, and Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado. It’s unlike any YA horror I’ve ever read. It’s unrelenting and unrepentant. I can’t tell you how excited I am to read Tran’s next literary entry, a short story in the forthcoming YA horror anthology Night of the Living Queers: 13 Tales of Terror Delight. I want every story they have to give.

Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.

This review and more like it in the March 2023 issue of Locus.

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