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Linghun coverWhen I was a child I lived in a cookie-cutter suburb outside of Ottawa. It was a place of subdivisions and crescents, houses arranged in such a way that families could be walking-distance from the local schools. There was one house in town that stood out, an old stone building from the 1800s, a historical property with ties to a famous Canadian. The kids spread all kinds of rumors about it: that it was haunted, that the residents were witches, that a murder had happened there. It was a Tim Burton-esque mansion amidst a bunch of prefab homes. It looked a lot like the home on the cover of Linghun by Ai Jiang. 

Linghun is the story of Wenqi, a teenage girl who has recently moved into a new house with her parents. Their new home is in a suburb outside of Toronto, in a neighborhood known as HOME (“Homecoming of Missing Entities”). The houses in HOME are highly sought after, as they are haunted. Or, at least, they have the potential to be haunted: after a family moves in, there’s a very good chance that a ghost of a dead loved one will appear and live amongst them once more. For people who have lost loved ones and been unable to move on, HOME calls to them like a siren call. There is only one reason anyone would move to HOME, a long-term resident notes: “not to seek new life, but to satisfy a longing for the dead” (pg. 5). Early on, this reveals one of Linghun’s more satisfying thematic elements: here, it is not the ghosts who are hungry, but the living.

In this way, the book revels in a surreal mundanity and at times seems like it wants to be a satire of suburbia, capitalism, and the housing market; but it never fully embraces these subplots. Instead, it becomes an interesting meditation on grief, and the effect it can have on both the people suffering from it, and the people close to them. It’s a haunted house story where the living residents deeply, desperately wish to be haunted, and fall into deeper despair when ghosts fail to manifest.

Wenqi’s family have moved to HOME in the hope of seeing Wenqi’s dead brother once more. Wenqi herself isn’t so enthused about overturning her whole life to chase after a ghost; her brother died when Wenqi was a young child and she’s more or less moved on. But her mother is still gripped by grief, and Wenqi’s father is just going along with whatever his wife wants. There’s also the added weight upon Wenqi of being part of an immigrant family who came to Canada from China years ago. Even before tragedy struck, there was already intergenerational trauma and high expectations for Wenqi to navigate. And then her brother died.

Wenqi’s brother was the golden child in the family, and after his death Wenqi has been living in his shadow. This is shown overtly in the text when Wenqi bemoans the fact that her parents are more concerned with the child who’s gone rather than the one who still lives; but there are also more subtle moments that show just how neglected Wenqi is. Twice in this novella, Wenqi mentions using a desk organizer, and both times says that her mother bought it for her. It’s a small detail, but enough to imply that it might be the only thing Wenqi’s mother has bought specifically for Wenqi.

Even at school Wenqi is the odd one out, the only person not obsessed with contacting the dead and keeping them close. There’s a class in her school schedule specifically about that, also named HOME. In it, fellow students talk about their attempts to get deceased loved ones to materialize, while other students talk about their hope of one day living in one of the houses in HOME. These other students are called “lingerers.” Lingerers are people who desperately want to live in one of the would-be haunted houses. They live in people’s yards, living out in the open in the hope of befriending a home owner who might leave their home to them (or sell it at a low price).

The lingerers are where the book starts to get really weird, going from what could have been a simple house-bound ghost story to something wider. If the people living in the homes are obsessed with the dead, then the lingerers are a step beyond even that. They are willing to sleep on grass for years just for the possibility of someday owning a home. They don’t work and are fed gruel daily by a food truck that comes by. One of the lingerers is a young man named Liam, a teen who goes to school with Wenqi. His parents are also obsessed with being reunited with their dead child, Liam’s little sister. This gives Wenqi and Liam something to connect over immediately, as well as their shared disdain for HOME and mutual desire to get away. But Liam, as we learn in the sections of the book conveyed from his POV, has befriended Wenqi with an ulterior motive: by showing her the ugliness of the place, he hopes to convince her to get her parents to gift his family their house.

He does this by bringing her to an “auction,” an event where the lingerers bid on a house that’s for sale. The auction quickly descends into a literal bloodbath between the interested parties, in which everyone involved—including children and the elderly—get bloodied or outright killed. It’s the most visceral part of the book, and also the only part that shows some dark humor. The auction scene is different tonally from the rest of the story, and I kind of wish that same dark ichor flowed through the rest of the story.

There is a third viewpoint character in Linghun: a mysterious “Mrs.”. Mrs. (no known last name) lives in the house across from Wenqi’s home. Supposedly she was the first resident of HOME. Supposedly, she killed her husband and is now haunted by his ghost. Supposedly she is the reason HOME is the way it is.

The Mrs. sections build slowly. Her first section on page six is just a few mere paragraphs, and we don’t hear from her again until page sixty-one. But, as the book draws closer to the end, we get more of her story—the real story rather than the rumors thrown around by the other residents. The Mrs. sections are beautifully written, poetic in a way that Liam and Wenqi’s are not.

While I like how the structure of the book kept Mrs. and her motives mysterious, I was still left wishing we could have spent more time with her. But we spend most of our time with Wenqi and Liam, and with the novel’s coming-of-age story of how a family can disintegrate in the wake of a child’s death. The two teens have both long supplanted their own desires and lives for their families’, leaving them with practically no wants or hobbies or dreams. This feels realistic and makes them sympathetic, if not always the most interesting viewpoint characters; but near the end of the story, the teenage desire for rebellion springs forth and the two come up with a plan to escape HOME.

It's hard to talk about the overall theme of Linghun without discussing the ending, but even if I were to spoil everything it’s not as though the book offers up any easy answers. There’s no trite “life is for the living” moral to this story, though that is the overwhelming sense early on. As it continues, though, Linghun instead seems to suggest that grief will always be a presence in life: just as you get over one loss, another follows.

Shannon Fay is a manga editor by day, fiction writer by night. Her debut novel, Innate Magic, was published in December 2021. Its sequel, External Forces, was published in 2022.
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