Ghost Town

Books

Kevin Chen’s dark and eerie novel opens with a question: “Where are you from?” This seemingly simple question reverberates throughout Ghost Town, and though its many characters are all desperate for an answer, satisfaction eludes them. Watching them try—as they tumble through their lives and wrestle with their complicated relationships to both home and family—makes for a rich and layered reading experience.

Ghost Town centers on the Chen family. Patriarch Cliff makes a living as a small-time merchant in a rural Taiwanese town. Cliff and his wife, Cicada, are disappointed by the births of their five daughters before finally having two sons. Keith, the youngest, becomes a writer and eventually leaves Taiwan for Germany, hungry to get out from under the weight of familial expectations. He falls in love with a German man, whom he eventually murders.

The novel opens with Keith’s return home after years in jail. His homecoming coincides with the Ghost Festival, a time when spirits visit the world of the living, who in turn make offerings to honor the ghosts and ease their suffering. Several chapters are narrated by ghosts, but they’re not just characters. Their presence permeates the book as a constant humming backdrop—the ghosts of the dead and the might-have-been, the ghosts of inherited trauma and domestic violence, the ghosts of memory.

It’s a dramatic setup, but the first two-thirds of Ghost Town are deliciously slow, lingering in the details and inviting readers into the characters’ internal lives. Keith muses for pages about the changes to the swimming pool where he learned to swim. Betty, his sister who now lives in Taipei, remembers a bookshop she frequented as a child. Middle sister Belinda describes her rich husband’s domestic abuse with chilling detachment. This attention to the ongoing drama and minuate of the family’s life causes the larger mystery—why Keith murdered his boyfriend—to recede into the background.

The final third contains the kind of grand revelations that can sometimes feel overwrought, especially after such a slow, meandering journey through memory and loss. But Chen sets it up masterfully enough that, instead, the ending feels inevitable.

Winner of both the Taiwan Literature Award and the Golden Tripod Award (one of the highest honors in Taiwanese publishing), Ghost Town is full of gauzy prose and dark imagery. Darryl Sterk’s translation has a dreamlike quality, and it’s clear how much care he took to render the nuances of the original Taiwanese into English. This isn’t an easy read, but like a ghost, it lingers.

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