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Linghun by Ai Jiang4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from Powells“Linghun” is a word in Chinese that means “soul.” But in this appropriately haunting novella by Ai Jiang, it’s not the dead who linger, but the living, whose inability to come to terms with grief has turned them into soulless husks of their former selves, trapped by choice in a kind of purgatory for the living. The story is told from three viewpoints as it unfolds in a town (or perhaps just a suburb) somewhere near Toronto called HOME, an acronym for Homecoming of Missing Entities. If you’re familiar with the five stages of grief as laid out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, you’ll quickly understand that the bereaved people who have come to HOME are trapped in stage one.

HOME is a neighborhood filled with haunted houses, or, perhaps more accurately, houses that invite hauntings. A family who moves into one — and moving in is difficult, involving auctions that descend into Hunger Games levels of violent brawling — can summon the ghost of a departed loved one by placing mementos of their lives all around the house. Tellingly, some of these departed souls don’t always seem happy to be brought back. And not every member of every surviving family feels an equal obsession with not letting go.

Early in the story we are told about the Lingerers, and at first I thought these might be ghosts as well. But they’re actually grieving people and families who have come to HOME without either the money to afford one of its homes, or who simply turned up when no empty homes were available and are unable to go back where they came from. Lingerers simply camp out on the lawns of the homes they hope to buy, due to a neighborhood rule of unexplained origin that you must be physically present at a property when it is vacated to be allowed to take part in the auction. These are fascinating world building choices by Ai Jiang, because they are so surreal, giving the story the character of gothic horror combined with a kind of dystopian nightmare futurism.

Wenqi is the teen daughter of a Chinese immigrant family that has just moved into HOME. Her brother died when he was six and she was only three. Her mother is totally consumed by her need to bring the boy back, while her father mainly goes along to get along, sticking with his work and offering very little support to Wenji, who feels not only ignored but actively rejected.

Liam is the son of a family that has come to HOME to reunite with the ghost of his little sister. Unlike Wenqi’s family, they’re Lingerers, but like Wenqi, Liam does not share his family’s obsession with his departed sibling and feels trapped by the senseless absurdity of it all. Liam and Wenqi meet at school. Yes, there is a school in this strange community, though it doesn’t seem too committed to teaching its students anything meaningful. Perhaps this is because families here only stick around until they succeed or fail at getting what they want. The final period of each school day is a 90-minute chat session where everyone just talks about their attempts to contact dead relatives. Liam initially has an ulterior motive in befriending Wenqi, but soon, they make plans to get away together.

Finally, there is the enigmatic character known only as “Mrs.”, who lives across the street from Wenqi’s family and whose house is the only one not haunted, and the only one without a small army of Lingerers camped on the lawn. This character’s story is the slowest to develop but the most intriguing in terms of development, revealing (without giving away too much) an individual whose circumstances never really allowed her to live.

Linghun is, thankfully, not a book with facile carpe diem messages to sell. But it does explore, with beautiful writing and a deep sense of empathy, the way that grief is simply an inescapable fact of life, and that how we choose to confront it has much to teach us about who we are and who we’re capable of being in our own brief time above ground.

The paperback edition of Linghun contains a couple of bonus short stories, “Yôngshí” and “Teeter Totter”.