Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Water Ghosts” as Want to Read:
Water Ghosts
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Water Ghosts

3.32  ·  Rating details ·  411 ratings  ·  101 reviews
A mesmerizing debut novel that weaves history and mythology around a community of Chinese immigrants and the ghosts that haunt them

Locke, California, 1928. Three bedraggled Chinese women appear out of the mist in a small Chinese farming town on the Sacramento River. Two are unknown to its residents, while the third is the long-lost wife of Richard Fong, the handsome manage
Paperback, 259 pages
Published July 27th 2010 by Penguin Books (first published April 1st 2008)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Water Ghosts, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Silver No, at least it is not about litteral ghosts. The “ghosts” of this story are symbolic and metaphorical.
Shawna Thanks for your comment. Yes, it was edited by The Penguin Press. The scene you reference (page 6, and then later focalized through another character …moreThanks for your comment. Yes, it was edited by The Penguin Press. The scene you reference (page 6, and then later focalized through another character on page 8) is in future tense because it's anticipating future events that have yet to take place. There is a fluid sense of time in the book, in part to convey the weight that the past bears on the present (and future), especially among the characters--many of them immigrants--who are negotiating their daily lives amid the discriminatory laws of the era. (less)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.32  · 
Rating details
 ·  411 ratings  ·  101 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Water Ghosts
Bethany C
I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about this book. When I first started it, the writing style seemed very strange. Present tense, and no quotation marks when people were clearly speaking, almost like one long run-on sentence. But I actually got used to it surprisingly quickly, and helped the book flow so that I seemed to read it faster. Then I was slightly put off and confused by jumping back and forth between years, but after a few times it fit the story as memories shaped the characters. H ...more
K.P. Kulski
Jan 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the most haunting books I've ever read. The ghosts of our regrets are woven into each word until they have wrapped themselves around the souls of the living. I drowned so many times reading this. So much truth and beauty that it exquisitely hurts to breathe it in and I wanted to breathe it all in.
Deb Atwood
Aug 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ghost-novels, ghost

With Ghost Month starting this week, this is the perfect time to take a look at Water Ghosts. This book was originally published under the title Locke 1928, and until I neared the end of the book, I would have said Locke 1928 was a better title than Water Ghosts. This is one of those novels in which the town becomes a kind of character, similar to Empire Falls by Richard Russo. And indeed, author Ryan paints the town with sensory-rich detail. I visited the tiny delta hamlet of Locke, CA, still e
Jason Pettus
Apr 26, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

One of the biggest pleasures of running this website is the chance to discover new books recommended to me by other writers I admire; take for example California author Jason Riley, who earlier this year sent along to me the novel Water Ghosts by his buddy acquaintance Shawna Yang Ryan, under the belief t
Jul 24, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-i-won
I really hate to give this book only three stars because it is truly beautifully written. I love the haunting mood of the novel and the use of Chinese mythology and stories. However, I have to add into my rating how enjoyable I found it to read. I tend to love novels that give me characters that I come to care about or at least find fascinating and this novel really didn't provide that. The story was also very hard for me to get into which would have been ok if in the end I felt it had a large i ...more
Amy Layton
This book was wonderful to read for a class--it's the perfect introduction to Asian-American (and more specifically, Chinese-American) history and literature. Also, lesbians.
Oct 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult
3.75 ⭐️s it was a very interesting story! And now I would love to do more research into water ghosts — it appears they appear often in folklore.
May 31, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I feel bad because I know Shawna and my 4 star review seems to have brought her average down. So let me clarify what I mean by 4 stars.

I think this is an excellent book. It does a fantastic job of touching on interpersonal relationships within a specific historical context and invoking emotional responses to spiritual/fantasy possibilities. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone. It is not my type of writing, along the lines that Toni Morrison is not my type of writer. Which is to
Bethany C
Jul 24, 2010 rated it liked it
I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about this book. When I first started it, the writing style seemed very strange. Present tense, and no quotation marks when people were clearly speaking, almost like one long run-on sentence. But I actually got used to it surprisingly quickly, and helped the book flow so that I seemed to read it faster. Then I was slightly put off and confused by jumping back and forth between years, but after a few times it fit the story as memories shaped the characters. H ...more
Maryan Heffernan
Shawna Yang Ryan’s beautifully written and evocative debut is splendid and I am looking forward to her continued career.

Water Ghosts is an exquisitely crafted insight into a Californian community of Chinese immigrants in 1928. Three spectral women emerge on a dilapidated boat out of a mist on the Sacramento River, one the wife of Richard Fong, manager of a local gambling saloon and two who are not known but their presence casts a strange shadow over this male dominated Chinese community.

The app
Jul 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
"I'd give my breath to you." A beautiful line from an absolutely beautiful book.

Water Ghosts is the story of Locke, California, 1928, when three Chinese women appear on the river out of the fog and disrupt the town. Who are these women? Where have they come from? Why have they come? These women become entwined with the lives of the townspeople as the story unfolds. It is a story of love, passion, ambition, and betrayal that feels almost dream-like.

I appreciate the style in which the book was wr
Jun 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: to-reread
I had to read this book for a class on the American Gothic, and I am so glad I did. This is truly an amazing work, unlike anything I've read before. Stylistically it is as jarring as the three boat women -- there are no quotation marks, leading to a lyrical sort of reading with multiple interpretations. The mixing of cultures and traditions leads to a unique setting during a difficult time in American history.
Jan 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
I love how Ryan uses history, myth, and folklore to tell her tale. The ending is amazing so I won't give anything away. Some of the descriptions are exquisite with a strong sense of melancholy. Each chapter feels like a vignette so at times it feels disjointed. This created an effect of separation between characters laid over days of routine labor with small events occurring or moments of awareness. It made me read it slower. I am not sure how I feel about this.
Amanda J
Aug 16, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: fans of Toni Morrison or Lisa See
Recommended to Amanda J by: goodreads giveaway
Mystical elements are combined with the historical setting of Locke, California in the 1920s - a chinese settlement near San Fransisco. Yang Ryan presents a wide cast of flawed characters, each with their own selfish ambitions and desires. While at times both lyrical and haunting, this novel moves slowly through its forced prose.
Aug 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
An interesting and well-written book, if a bit explicit. The writing style is intersting. The author doesn't use quotation marks, which was weird at first, but gave the story almost a dream-like quality. The story switches between different charcters often. It was a quick read.
Dec 07, 2015 rated it liked it
Historical fiction that takes place in the Sacramento Delta when Chinese were first immigrating to Cali. It has a slow rhythm like everything is under water. It's about water images and power, women's roles and the body, agency through spirit.
Ju Haghverdian
DNF - Part 2, Chapter 12.

This is the 3rd time I tried to "read" this story but I cannot get through it.
I'm not sure why, I cannot connect with the story. I cannot say it was for the lack of trying.
Jane Mettee
Dec 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Magical writing. Enjoyed this story and the history.
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure what to say about this book. I listened to it and I read another reviewer that said she had to stop listening to it and switch to the book. I felt like, if I switched to the book, I would have never finished it. The book has no quotations marks, etc... when the characters are talking. That would probably drive me crazy. It is beautifully written; I will give it that. But, it was hard to follow at times. I found myself just focusing on 4 characters and listening for their names to co ...more
Isla Scott
The writing has a dreamy and poetic feel to it. It is relatively descriptive at times but not in a monotonous way. The characters are intriguing and I found it quite an immersive read. It mentions (if but briefly) about some old Chinese myths - myths and superstitions are relevant themes I'd say.

It is quite sexual at times, which I hadn't really expected, so its not for younger readers. For reference, affairs and prostitution are mentioned in the plot. I thought it was a good read overall, a bit
Jan 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
A beautiful moving story that is lyrically told and flows like water. It is a story of the intertwining lives of the people of Locke Sacramento, a community built by Chinese Americans. It moves back and forth through time revealing the often harrowing experiences that brought them all here.

Many immigrated to California believing it to be a land of promise and opportunity but often only hardship was discovered. The characters of this book seek to make the best life for themselves as they can whe
Jul 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
Read this with a book group at work and just could not get into it. Some individual snippets of writing are beautiful and intriguing, but overall, I found this novel to be too atmospheric. I felt like I was swimming through fog most of the time. The lack of quotation marks didn't help. Normally I like books that jump around in time, but in this book, the jumping only caused more confusion and disconnection.
Monica L
Sep 23, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
While it tries to channel Beloved, it pales in comparison.

Enough ghost puns. But overall, it did feel that this book aimed high and fell a bit short. I would have loved to see more fleshed out characters, more transparent motivations, and more solid world-building.

Okay, now I am done with ghost puns.
Seonaid Hayes
Jul 11, 2020 rated it liked it
3 stars at most. It could have been great but the stories and characters were left unexplored and flat. It was just good enough to let you hope it all ended in some great way to make it worth the read but, alas, no. At least it was short.
May 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: literary-fiction
3.5 stars
Camille H
I read this book under the original title "Locke, 1928"
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
Super sllllllloooooowwwww. Last 1/5 of the book it finally picked up.
Also, not that creepy.
Jul 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
There might be a conflict of interests in me reviewing this book, as the author is my (awesome) former professor. But regardless of the possibility that my opinion was colored by me knowing her, I stand by my opinion that this book is awesome, and easily the best fiction I've read all year.

The plot summary reads like a Chinese-American version of Beloved (and although this book really is its own thing, I draw the comparison because she quotes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech): the y
Mar 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved it, but it is not for everyone. It is not a linear strongly plot driven book. This is written as a series short vignettes and chapters that read like short stories. The strength of this book is in the telling, excellently written, a writers book.

Early on it is a bit tough to follow as it jumps around in time. In the beginning I'd have lost without the cast of characters listed on the forepage.
Jill Paulson
May 05, 2011 rated it liked it
The story is intriguing, no doubt, and while there several things that I really liked about this book, there were a few things that I mildly disliked as well.

Let's start with what I liked.

First of all, the prose is SO beautiful...often quite poetic which was a feast for my imagination. The scenes and characters really came to life as I was reading.

I have always been a fan of cultural and historical novels and this one fits both. There is a very strong infusion of the Chinese culture even though
« previous 1 3 4 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Blackfish City
  • White is for Witching
  • Of Mice and Men
  • This World We Live In (Last Survivors, #3)
  • The Dead and the Gone (Last Survivors, #2)
  • The Shade of the Moon (Last Survivors, #4)
  • The Daughters of Foxcote Manor
  • The Pull of the Stars
  • The New Husband
  • The Memory Police
  • The Only Good Indians
  • Quichotte
  • Upright Women Wanted
  • The End of Policing
  • The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex
  • Blindsight (Firefall, #1)
  • The Joy Luck Club (Oxford Bookworms Library: Stage 6 Reader)
  • The City in the Middle of the Night
See similar books…
SHAWNA YANG RYAN is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of Water Ghosts (Penguin Press 2009) and Green Island (Knopf 2016). She is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Asian American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Lithub, and The Washington Post. Her work has received the Association for Asian American St ...more

Articles featuring this book

For as long as people have been telling stories, we’ve spun tales of the monsters and nightmares that lurk in the shadows of our imaginations....
173 likes · 59 comments
No trivia or quizzes yet. Add some now »