Skip to main content

Ghost Town, by Kevin Chen

translated by Darryl Sterk

Europa Editions, 2023

Publisher's Blurb

Keith Chen, the desperately yearned for second son of a traditional Taiwanese family with five daughters, refuses to play the role his parochial parents would cast him in. Instead, he chooses to make a life for himself in cosmopolitan Berlin, where he finally finds acceptance as a young gay man.

The novel is set about a decade later, on Ghost Festival, the Day of Deliverance. After Keith’s release from a maximum security prison, he has nowhere to go but home. With his parents gone, his siblings married, mad, on the lam, or dead, there is nothing left for him there, so it seems. As he explores his uncanny home town, we learn what tore his family apart, and, more importantly, the truth behind the terrible crime Keith committed in Germany.

Told in a myriad of voices—both living and dead—and moving through time with deceptive ease, Ghost Town is a mesmerizing story of family secrets, countryside superstitions, and the search for identity amid a clash of cultures.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Helen Lewis, 14/7/23

Ghost Town is a seething jambalaya of culture, characters and contrasts, a rip-roaring tour through small town Taiwan, taking in enough different themes for several novels.  Due to the extensive cast list and complex structure, I wondered at first whether I was reading a collection of short stories.  However, as certain characters circled round for the second time, I took on the role of ‘reader detective’, gradually gathering more intel on the extended family and the fictional town of Yongjing. The alliterative names of four of the sisters did cause some confusion at first, but as Chen continued to stir the pot, they sprang to life and I was hooked, turning the pages to find out what would happen next.  Readers might want to ensure they are equipped with note book and pen plus a box of tissues!

An intriguing feature of the story is the way in which the narrative is handed over to ghosts.  I was not always sure which one was speaking at a particular time until they let slip some key information and, with a sigh of recognition, I would quickly backtrack a few pages to recalibrate my understanding of what they had said earlier in the chapter.  This storytelling device seemed to work on two levels, firstly to give further perspectives on the emerging story, but also to develop the very Chinese idea of a community of family members who watch on from the sidelines, witnesses to past and present turmoil, emotionally present and authentically still themselves but (and here we depart from the assumptions of ancestor worship) frustratingly without agency.

The ‘lives’ of the ghosts seem comparatively peaceful compared to that of their live compatriots who are all experiencing their own tailor-made purgatory.  Just by existing, the four sisters cause offence to mother and grandmother alike for not being sons, and they fare no better when married, being abused, betrayed or exploited by their various partners.  Second daughter Betty, despite appearing on the news and going viral on social media ‘had no idea that she was colorless and transparent…’, ‘hadn’t disappeared yet, but she didn’t fully exist anymore’.  Meanwhile Barbie, having succeeded in stealing her sister’s fiancé, becomes a recluse, shut up in the tomb-like White House, a mere shadow of her former self.  Even at the end of the novel, there is neither relief nor redemption for the sisters as they are upstaged by their own mother, who, true to her name (Cicada), has apparently been reborn, making her daughters look older than their years.

The longed-for sons of the novel fare little better.  Heath is cherished and spoiled by his mother, his birth having released her from years of her mother-in-law’s bullying, but his burgeoning political career is cut short as he becomes the fall guy for yet another scheme set up by their neighbours, the hustling Wang family.  Keith, in some ways the focus of the chief mystery of the novel, spends years in self-imposed exile in a cold and hostile Germany, his supposed journey into freedom from his dysfunctional family turning into a nightmare.  Chen reserves some of his most subtle and beautiful imagery for these scenes, inspired at times by his own observations of the Berlin cityscape. Whilst some reviewers have criticised his characterisation here, I feel that the atmosphere of detachment he creates serves to highlight Keith’s alienation and confusion as he tries to make sense of the loneliness of individualistic Western culture.

It is true that sometimes a fragrance or a sound can conjure up a host of memories, and Chen does not leave us wanting here.  The narrative is peppered with a whole spectrum of sights, sounds, smells and feelings, with all the immediacy of a personal memoir.  However, he uses his memories as a springboard for creativity rather than trying to share his autobiography, standing back from his much-abused characters and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.  Rather like Beverley’s ‘downwards’ dream, we are pulled into a maelstrom of recollections, cultural shibboleths, shocks and suffering, building momentum until, in the closing pages, the wind changes direction as Cicada summons her breath to tell us ‘Don’t Cry!’

Reviewed by Helen Lewis

Reviewed by Mia Chen Ma, 10/7/23

“Ghosts weren’t scary, people were. The living were the cruelest, not the dead.” (Chen, Ghost Town, 23)

Kevin Chen’s novel Ghost Town has received widespread acclaim since its publication. Chen showcases his strong storytelling ability, skillfully weaving interconnected details that create a sense of fate and build suspense. While the symbolic presence of ghosts is a central theme throughout the book, it becomes increasingly apparent that their importance lies not in their literal existence but rather as powerful agents that carry the scars, secrets, and horrors of family, the small town, and the history. The ghosts become a vehicle for exploring unresolved aspects of the self and situations that find no outlet in the real world, often blurring the line between reality and fiction.

In the beginning pages of this novel, Chen writes, "For my hometown, a non-existent Yongjing," implying that although it is not an autobiography, it carries the weight of the author Chen's personal experiences, particularly the intricate emotional ties to his hometown and loved ones. Keith Chen, the protagonist in the story, returns to his childhood home, longing to reconnect with his surviving siblings. The narrative perspective alternates among the siblings and the ghosts of deceased family members, creating a thrilling effect that mirrors the mechanics of memory. The novel hints at the personal experiences of the author, especially the complex entanglement of emotions between himself and his hometown and family.

During the zoom session with the author, Kevin Chen, at the Leeds Residential Weekend, he also discussed how this novel had brought him closer to his sisters on an unexpected level. Over time, they developed a tacit agreement to suppress their emotional expressions towards each other. However, after the publication of Ghost Town, his sister, upon his return to Taiwan, unexpectedly expressed sympathy and sadness for what she believed he had gone through. In the novel, the protagonist Keith Chen fleeing to Berlin and unintentionally killing his partner. She mistakenly believed that Keith Chen, the fictional character, was Kevin Chen himself and firmly believed that Kevin Chen had killed his partner in Germany. This intriguing detail reveals a genuine psychological and emotional connection between the fictional plot and the author Chen's sister. It demonstrates how fiction and reality intertwine, making it impossible and unnecessary to distinguish between them. Often, we inject stronger and more explicit emotional power into fiction while having to incorporate a touch of fiction into the harshness of reality.

One notable aspect that stood out to me in this novel is the impression that the characters sometimes lack depth and complexity. With numerous characters and complex plotlines, the storytelling occasionally feels abrupt and fragmented. As mentioned in a review by The New York Times, this is particularly evident in the characterization of Keith’s time in Germany, where the narrative seems disconnected from the overall novel, leading to a lack of in-depth exploration of Keith's inner transformation. This could be an indication of the author channeling deeply suppressed personal emotions into the book. Despite the gradual release of these emotions, they remain influenced and controlled by an intangible force, akin to a ghost, hindering the author from fully articulating them and only allowing fragmented glimpses within the disrupted timeline.

I highly recommend this novel, particularly to those who still carry unresolved feelings towards their hometowns. Its pages reflect our own reflections and demonstrate how lingering emotions metamorphose into spectral manifestations that leave a lasting impact on our lives over an extended duration.

Reviewed by Mia Chen Ma

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter, 19/6/23

This book should come with half a dozen trigger warnings. The main character, Keith has many sisters, who are all married and hate their husbands to a greater or lesser degree. What I really couldn’t look past was the way each woman faced near constant domestic abuse or abuse at work, and yet all of the characters treated this as a situation that could never change. It is the main reason why I would not recommend this book.

The first chapter held my interest but Keith, our main character, was not quite compelling enough on his own. He has committed murder and the plot of the story is finding out the circumstances of this murder. So rather than a whodunnit, it’s a howdunnit.

It’s difficult enough to read a book that has one rape. To read about the abuse of multiple characters and to never have a resolution or even a payoff (for example a revenge plot as in The Butcher’s Wife by Li Ang) was frustrating. It also crushed my hopes that some kind of order would be brought to this fictional world. To add to the distress, there is violence towards Keith’s sister’s dog. It is just one heartbreaking detail after another.

There are still aspects of this book that are meticulously portrayed, and I appreciated that. The descriptions of rural Taiwan are lovely. The sound of rain falling on a tin roof is the only thing that can help Keith fall asleep, and he cannot find this sound anywhere in Germany; I liked the idea of that. But the book seemed to focus a little too heavily on smell rather than the other senses. More descriptions of sounds and sights would have been nice, and more descriptions of happy moments, even if they are just slivers of moments, would be nice.

The translation is excellent. I have read other books translated by the same translator, Daryl Sterk, and I think this is his best work thus far. Special care was paid to word choice, for example the following description of Betty, the white collar worker: “She had no idea that she was colorless and transparent, the easiest kind of existence to overlook in a crowd.” Sterk also dealt with dozens of culture specific items in a skilled way, so that the reader was not taken out of the story and was able to understand the festival or item in question. Descriptions of Ghost Festival and the Hellgate, for example, gave the reader just enough information without being patronizing or requiring a footnote.

Ultimately, this book has too many distressing moments without enough redemption or motivation for me to recommend it. It is bleak and graphic and difficult. Maybe it has a place in the literary world, but I’m not an expert.

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter

Reviewed by Angus Stewart, 24/5/23

It’s not often that, for my podcast (the Translated Chinese Fiction Podcast, no less), I read books by authors who – at least in translation – go by an English name. Eileen Chang is one, and the first. The second and last thus far is Kevin Chen. No pressure then, Kevin.

Eileen Chang is most famous for writing about the hometown that she left for Hong Kong, then the USA. In Ghost Town, Kevin Chen tells a (mostly) Taiwanese story from his new home in the country he left Taiwan for: Germany.

Germany proves to be quite the inextricable splinter in this novel. The closest figure we have to a main character, one Keith Chen, has just returned from chilly Deutschland to his hometown. But it’s a total ghost town, so why come running back? Well, because Keith’s just been released from prison… for murdering… his German boyfriend. A fearsome premise indeed, but don’t get attached to it. Ghost Town concerns itself not only with Kevin’s stand-in (the author has assured readers he has never killed, not even once), but with a cast of siblings (many, mostly sisters) and elder generations of a family trapped in a spiral of emotional malaise and financial decline ever since postwar reforms cancelled their easy rent-funded life as rural landowners.

Speakers of both Chinese and English will know that ‘ghost’ is hardly a simple word. In Ghost Town we are privy to hauntings of all sorts, hearing tell of the imagined ghosts born from local superstition and being granted the perverse and melancholy thrill of narration by the watchful, disintegrated dead. For fleeting moments, the effect is truly unearthly. The rest is firmly earthbound. Family trauma, family rivalry, sexual abuse, sexual confusion, and a persistent tremor of political unrest shred and shrivel the Chen family page-by-page, to the extent that it can be rather hard to keep apace of the suffering ­– especially since translator Darryl Sterk opts to assign alliterated English names to all the sisters. Was it Barbie, Betty, or Belinda who fell into madness first? You’ll probably need to be taking notes.

Keith’s trauma story – one of departure, crisis, return, and meditation on things past – is the most interesting through-line, and (by no coincidence) the most distinct. Keith’s path is far from cosy, though. What might read as the nuanced awakening of a boy’s homosexuality to one reader will read as outright child sexual abuse to another. I have to say that the handling did not sit right with me, in part because other Taiwanese literature I’ve encountered has also, I feel, crossed this ugly line.

Dark too, but perhaps less objectionable on literary grounds, is the twisted love story Keith wanders into in Berlin. He meets another blighted soul, finds something beautiful, and barely survives. I won’t disclose exactly what the worm in the apple is, because the drip-feed of chronological exposition Kevin Chen employs here is great, and makes for a relieving contrast from the seamless but scatterbrain back-and-forth-in-time approach he takes to depicting the fall of the House of Chen. Indeed, by this novel’s end, I suspect you the reader will be relieved simply to be alive, out of prison, and (I should hope) of sound mind.

Reviewed by Angus Stewart

Reviewed by Zahra Raja, 22/5/23

The main protagonist Keith, has just been released from prison for killing his partner and makes his way to his home village of Yongjing. We are not clear initially for what reason he was imprisoned, but what is clear is that coming home releases a floodgate of repressed ghosts and memories, that once flowing cannot be stemmed again. His homecoming serves to summon his siblings, all of whom have their own traumas and ghosts from childhood that they cannot escape. Interestingly, Yongjing has its own rich history of ghost stories and has been victim to a brain drain, and so is the perfect backdrop for a family who remain in the past, forever unable to move forwards. One of the narrators is in fact a ghost of one of the deceased family members. Through the novel they tell their stories, and we learn what brought Keith to the point of murder.

The narrative switches between different siblings; 5 sisters and 2 brothers are all haunted by their own individual traumas from their childhood, whilst also struggling in the present to deal with money troubles, spousal abuse, guilt over dead family members to name a few. Names in the novel are not Romanised, but given carefully chosen English names instead. Darryl Sterk explains in the translator’s note that he considers the Romanising of Chinese names “impoverishing” due to the lost meaning, hence giving all the sisters ‘B’ names that fit their respective personalities. While I understand his reasoning, I found it a little difficult to distinguish between all the sisters at first, and I didn’t necessarily feel the translation of Ashan (which contains the character for mountain, symbolising his role of head of the family) to Cliff in English held the same weight. This is a small quibble in an overall absorbing translation, and if you persist with the story, it becomes easier to distinguish between the siblings as the layers are unravelled. Interestingly, the youngest and favourite daughter Ciao, or Plenty as she is more commonly known, is never given a voice, and is the only sibling who remains silent.

The back and forth narrative style serves to blur the past and present, and highlight how the Chen family can’t extricate themselves from their past trauma. It isn’t actually made clear how much time has passed as the novel progresses and there’s a shock at the end of the novel when their ages are highlighted, especially in comparison to their mother. She is the only one who has managed to leave her ghosts behind in a surprising plot twist, and is described as looking much younger than her children who haven’t been able to do the same and have aged significantly as a result.

The title of the novel has been translated from the Chinese gui difang which is ambigious in meaning; it can be translated to disliked place, hellhole, ghost place, God-forsaken place and so on. Though the story opens with Keith leaving jail, it is less about the crime that Keith committed and more about the inexorable pull back to his ghost town, the same pull that keeps his family there and unable to escape. It’s not an easy read by any means, but it is well worth the effort for anyone interested in modern Taiwanese fiction.

Reviewed by Zahra Raja