Yes, Water Ghosts is as haunting as its title suggests.
The characters are haunted by their lives, by old expectations. Mostly, though, they are haunted by the spectre of love--what they want it to be, how they wish it were different, what could have been if.... The characters are subject to, more than anything else in their lives, love's morphability, its capricious nature, its temperaments, and all the other feelings that come with it (or its absence): power, longing, protectiveness, desperation, jealousy.
The people in Locke, California, a town of Japanese and Chinese immigrants, are settled (read: resigned) into their lives before the three women arrive in their strange little boat, appearing out of a surreal mist during a town celebration. But the boat-women upset a balance. In a town of men looking for wives, where men significantly outnumber the women, two of the strange women are courted by every free man (and probably a couple who aren't really free) in town.
One of the strange boat-women is the wife of one of the more successful men in town, the manager of a gambling hall; she was left behind when he came seeking fortune in America, and afraid she had been abandoned, she risked everything she had to be with him. One woman is searching for her husband, who she hadn't heard from for months before she left. One woman, the youngest, seems to have no story at all.
Poppy, a brothel madame who has long been in love with the gambling hall manager and who has a gift of second sight, is disturbed by the presence of the women; there is something not right about the ever-cold, almost luminescent survivors of the sea.
In spite of their arrival putting town order into disarray, though, the women themselves remain on the outskirts of the stories that had been in motion before their arrival. But it is the boat-women who effect the characters' decisions, their courses of action, the reinvention of their lives, in the end.
With clear, unpretentious prose, the stories come together in the end like an unexpectedly high, intense wave rushing onto the shore. I was left breathless by the last fifty pages of this book.
Ryan has crafted a fantastic collection of lives and illusion, and I'll be adding her to my list of authors to watch.
Water Ghosts will be released April 16.
Many thanks to Penguin Press for sending me an ARC of Water Ghosts, and for choosing to, as Ryan puts it, give this book a second life. And to El Leon Literary Arts for publishing it the first time around. I'm ever so glad you did.