cover image Ghost Town

Ghost Town

Kevin Chen, trans. from the Taiwanese by Darryl Sterk. Europa, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-60945-798-3

Chen (Three Ways to Get Rid of Allergies) offers a haunting if overstuffed drama of a Taiwanese family’s efforts to rise out of poverty. After Keith Chen arrives back in Yongjing, having spent a decade in prison in Germany for killing his lover, T, he reunites with his older sisters Beverly, Betty, and Belinda during the monthlong annual Ghost Festival, in which residents leave out offerings for the dead. Each sibling, as well as supporting characters, takes desperate measures to improve their lives. Beverly, the eldest, gets pregnant by the gambler Little Gao. Betty runs errands for the owners of the Tomorrow Bookstore before it gets shut down by the police for selling banned books. Belinda has an abusive husband and, in one poignant episode, visits Keith in prison. These strands, along with flashbacks of Keith’s relationship with T in Berlin, have a sort of stuttered pacing, but Chen does a great job creating atmosphere. A hot bowl of soup “smell[s] like a snake, silently slithering around your ankle, up your leg, around your waist,” and termites “nibbl[e] with fervid desperation.” Eventually, Chen gets into the nightmarish details around T’s killing, but it takes too long to bring everything together. Though vivid, this ambitious novel is a bit too unwieldy. (Oct.)