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'Ghost Town' blurs the line between the living and the dead in rural Taiwan

The cover of 'Ghost Town' by Kevin Chen.
Europa Editions

As multigenerational family sagas go, they don't get more intense and operatic than Ghost Town, a novel by Kevin Chen and the winner of the 2020 Taiwan Literature Award. Now translated into English thanks to Darryl Sterk, Ghost Town is reminiscent of the dreamlike narratives of Can Xue and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and will require readers to hold on tight to their sense of reality as the prose blurs lines between the living and the dead, the past and the present, and finally, the guilty and the innocent.

Relentlessly harassed about his homosexuality by both schoolmates and his especially harsh mother, Keith Chen, the novel's primary protagonist, flees his hometown of Yongjing to live a freer, bohemian life in Berlin, where he enters a romance with a German named T.

By the end of the first chapter, however, Keith reveals that he's murdered T, without saying how or why. After serving his prison sentence, Keith returns to Yongjing for the first time in many years.

Yongjing, a "rural backwater" in central Taiwan, feels like its own character, a setting-sized ghost that looms over the lives of the Chen family. The words yong and jing mean eternal peace, but the town comes to be nicknamed "Always Quiet."

As Keith and his family members each relive their pasts in alternating chapters, descriptions of Yongjing make it clear that the town's best days are behind it.

He grew up in one of those townhouses, the fifth from the left. ...The seventh was once a VHS video rental store, but now the whole building was charred black. There was a "For Sale" sign on the balcony. The place had been 出售 "For Sale" for years. The top half of the second character 售 had fallen off, leaving a yawning 口 "mouth" that transformed "For Sale" into "Way Out."

Keith's youngest sister, Plenty, died by suicide. His four older sisters (Beverly, Barbie, Betty and Belinda) are all unhappily married. Heath, Keith's older brother, has become Yongjing's corrupt mayor. Beverly, the eldest sister, has stayed near home and married a forklift driver with a gambling problem. Barbie has wedded the local magnate, who made his fortune selling crackers and keeps his wife locked in their mansion while he cavorts with mistresses. Betty is a civil servant in Taiwan's capital, Taipei, enduring the negligence of her own husband. Belinda, the only university-educated sister, is married to a news anchor who browbeats her about her weight. The Chen parents, Cliff and Cicada, narrate their humble beginnings as ghosts.

Ghost Town is a maximalist performance that often walks the fine line between echoic and repetitive. There are multiple suicides, and the husbands and boyfriends, save for the cuckolded Cliff, are all similar shades of awful. They commit marital rape, adultery, verbal abuse, drug use and torture, all in just under 320 pages. As one might surmise, secrets abound.

Despite the darkness of the material, the passion in the prose is unmistakable, and there are many lovely moments like this one, when Betty takes the train home for the climactic family reunion and feels herself becoming, in a way, a living ghost.

She looked out the window, no longer able to see her reflection. Every time she went home, she felt herself getting lighter and lighter. The closer to Yongjing, the more spectral she became. By the time she got there, she was translucent.

Even though the plot kicks off with a murder mystery, the heart of the novel is about Keith's coming of age of a gay man in a conservative rural town. His sisters, each in their own ways, are empathetic to Keith's difficult upbringing and pine for their brother to come home. The Chen family's collective longing to reunite in the face of constant tragedy fuels an exhilarating and often quite moving reading experience. Ghost Town is simply tough to put down and you'll be thinking about the Chens long after you've left Yongjing.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon, among other outlets.

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Leland Cheuk