There are many ways of being haunted, which is why a good haunted house story is always compelling. The ghosts of the past, made up of regret, are tough things to exorcise, and tougher to run away from. But the characters in Ai Jiang’s debut novel Linghun run toward the ghosts and will do about anything to get a house primed for haunting.
Wenqi has just moved with her parents to a new house in a neighborhood referred to as HOME—Homecoming Of Missing Entities. People there turn off their cell phones, hang up pictures of deceased loved ones, and otherwise try to conjure the spirit of someone who has gone before. The missing entity in Wenqi’s case is her brother, who was killed when he was six and Wenqi was three. In the decade-plus since, Wenqi’s parents, especially her mother, have been stuck on that tragedy ever since—and Wenqi has spent her life dwarfed by it, including having her life uprooted on the chance that her parents can see their dead son again.
Liam never knew the sister who died and left his parents in perpetual grief, but he is tired of living on the lawn of someone else’s house in HOME. As lingerers, his family hasn’t been able to buy a house yet but are camped out to have a slight advantage bidding on one when it comes up for sale. In the meantime, Liam goes to the local high school with Wenqi where students learn more about coping with grief than they do academics. And amid the residents, ghosts, and lingerers, an old woman watches from her house, waiting to be haunted herself.
Linghun is a slim book, though its subject material is heavy. Beyond the deaths that haunt every character, literally or metaphorically, comes the secondary hurt: Wenqi being neglected for virtually her whole life, Liam failing to be the replacement child his parents wanted by virtue of being himself. The old woman watching from her home has her own ghosts, too: there’s the one belonging to her husband she keeps hoping will show up, but she’s also been haunted for decades by the person she used to be, could have kept being, if she hadn’t been a mail-order bride shipped from her home to another continent like livestock. Who she could have been if her husband had cared to know her instead of expecting her to bend to his expectations.
That’s a common thread running through Linghun: People not being valued for who they are, and punished for not being someone else entirely. Forgotten in favor of a memory. Jiang isn’t naive enough to suggest the fault of characters like Wenqi’s parents is a lack of moving on, but instead that they keep focusing on what has been lost while taking for granted what remains. Their desperation extends to risking life and limb, or the deaths of more family members, to a mini Hunger Games-style contest held to let lingerers get an edge up on the fierce house-buying competition—just in case the metaphor doesn’t come clearly enough.
“Moving on” from grief is a myth; often, the best someone can do is grow around the sadness until it doesn’t take up a whole life. In Linghun, the refusal to grow after tragedy is almost tangible, bringing with it cascading tragedies. There is no happy ending with a setup like that, but there is one that is as tender as it is tough to swallow. The patterns of grief are tough to break, and threaten to make lingerers of us all.