There’s something wryly apt about a novel called Ghost Town having an Afterward. In the final pages of the book, its life-after-text, author Kevin Chen explains that writing the story was his attempt to understand what a ghost is. It’s an exercise that left him with more questions than answers:

“’Do you become a ghost only after you die? Or can you qualify as a ghost while you are still alive?’

‘Maybe you and I are ghosts.’”

Similar ambiguities apply to the idea of a ghost town. Yongjing, the Taiwanese backwater at the heart of the book, typifies the classic sense of ghost town as a place abandoned, left in the dust by “progressive” forces:

“When Taiwan’s economy ran wild in the 1970s, Yongjing didn’t keep up with the pace of development. There was a brain drain. When young people like him left the countryside, they never came back…Originally a blessing, the name became a curse. Intended to signify Eternal Peace, Yongjing came to mean Always Quiet. It was really, really quiet.”

This scans with the image of ghost towns that I’ve always held – those after the goldrush mining settlements in California, or the urban decay of Thatcher’s Britain chronicled in The Specials’ song of the same name.  

When philosophy got interested in hauntings though, thinkers like Derrida (stay with me) pointed out the paradox of ghosts: they are both absent and present at the same time – at once there and not there. So looked at another way (as Kevin Chen does) a ghost town is not just abandoned, it is haunted (with varying degrees of literalness) by its past. This might be the traces of trauma, both physical and psychological, which exist in the minds and bodies of the few remaining inhabitants, and possibly outside them too. It might be the full-blown manifestation of a suicide in a bamboo grove. And it is a place haunted by a lost future: the prosperity that never arrived, the potential for what could have been, if things had gone differently. It’s this knotty hauntological territory that Ghost Town inhabits, and it does so with a truly startling level of poignancy.

The book begins with Keith Chen (a likely doppelganger of the author) returning to Yongjing after a long period abroad in Germany. More specifically, he’s freshly released from prison and gravitates towards his childhood home because he has nowhere else to go. The day of his arrival is (in)auspicious: across Taiwan, people are observing the Ghost Festival, that time of year when the Hellgate is wide open and the dead (or the “goodfellas/spirit-Mafia” as one character describes them) must be honoured.   

The subsequent chapters cycle between different characters, and as a nod to the paradoxical presence/absence thing, despite being set in a fading settlement, the cast of Ghost Town is large. Keith has five sisters, a mother and a father. Not all of them are alive, but that doesn’t stop us getting the story from their points of view. The reader gradually starts to build up an understanding of what happened to the family and, through their interactions with other Yongjing inhabitants, the history of the town.

The way the novel handles time makes for a peculiar reading experience that suits the themes of the book. A lack of section breaks blurs the distinction between different parts of the past, as well as between past and present. A paragraph break might signify the gap between food being served and food being eaten, or it might represent a leap of a decade. Similarly with the tenses. I’m not sure if it was strictly the case that only the ghosts ever spoke in the present tense, with those among the living confined to experiencing things that had already passed, but it seemed at the very least like a general rule of thumb. When in effect, it produced a fascinating sense of disorientation. Even the divisions of the book (the novel has three parts) seemed to be out of joint: Part 1 is called “Mom’s Gone Missing,” but the mom has been dead for years. Part Two is called “Little Brother’s Back,” but Keith’s return already happened on page one.

Mixing up time and perspective in this way has a weird effect on revelation. Some of the traumas that are unearthed feel as if they should be very dramatic but – and this is so difficult to explain – the disclosure feels simultaneously surprising and mundane, both powerful and yet somehow muted. There was a point at which, several days after finishing the book, something dawned on me in a way I’ve never experienced before. I suppose what dawned could be called a “twist,” and a major one at that, as it re-cast the entire novel in a different light. My response though, was a sort of quiet marvelling. Even here, that “quiet” is too quiet and that “marvelling” too marvellous. There’s probably some semi-untranslatable German concept for it, but if there is it’s unknown to me. The nearest I can get is Zen-surprise, which is obviously godawful for sounding like a shade of bathroom paint.        

Despite the heavy subject matter, the book is never maudlin. In fact, true to paradoxical form, it manages to be light and heavy at the same time. The characters, whether deceased or not, seem truly alive. The sadness comes, perhaps, from the living seeming most alive in their past, the dead seeming most alive in their present. Or, put the opposite way, the living seeming dead in their present, the dead seeming dead in their past:

“He did not know what ghosts looked like but he guessed that if a ghost saw his sister it would get scared for sure. That ghost would assume it had seen a ghost.”

So many novels are described as “haunting,” but Ghost Town actually creates that contradictory eeriness within the reader. I’m left feeling full and empty, dissatisfied and fulfilled, as if I’m touching something which is just out of reach.  


Ghost Town

by Kevin Chen

Translated by Darryl Sterk

Europa Editions, 384 pages

Adam Ley-Lange

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He's currently trying to find an agent for his first novel, whilst working on his second. Adam is also an editor for Structo Magazine, which publishes short fiction, essays and poetry.

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He's currently trying to find an agent for his first novel, whilst working on his second. Adam is also an editor for Structo Magazine, which publishes short fiction, essays and poetry.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *