The Girl with Ghost Eyes | Author: M. H. Boroson | Rating: 10.8/11 |
This year’s fiction market has been a nostalgia game. Just take a look at 2015’s blockbuster hits: Jurassic World; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Mad Max: Fury Road; and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But nostalgia isn’t necessarily as straight-forward as revisiting the characters and the places of the past. It crystallizes that past as perfect, creating a historic-biographical blind spot that can be as problematic in fiction as it is in politics.
It is refreshing, then, to come across an historical fiction adventure novel which manages to side-step the ‘Glory Days’ pitfall. Set in San Francisco in the late 1800’s, M. H. Boroson’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes tells the story of Lin-lin, a young Chinese woman living in California’s Chinatown. The only child of a powerful Daoist, Lin-lin has been trained in the arts of exorcism and kung fu by her father. She must use these skills to confront an evil sorcerer after he is hired by the scion of the Ansheng Tong to destroy a rival gang. Lin-lin is a second level Daoist, which means that she is much weaker than her opponents. But after a wicked plot incapacitates her father, she must rely upon her own wits and strength to face the evil threatening her city.
Boroson’s meticulously researched novel is a beautiful blend of ancient Chinese myths and hard historical realisms. The prose resembles a second-language narrative and its first-person perspective adds to the slightly stilted, jarring sensation which results from this. It doesn’t help that the story dives directly into the plot from page one with no exposition. But don’t let that deter you; Boroson may be sparse on adjectives, but his characters are richly detailed, believable and complicated, and the narrative carries through to a satisfying (if open-ended) finish.
The true gem of the book, however, is Lin-lin herself, a strong historical heroine who isn’t anachronistic. Her narrative is a fantasy adventure story, and in many ways, it loyally follows the underdog tropes that have done so well in today’s fantasy market. But The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also a true frontier story. Lin-lin finds herself constantly set in the precarious no-man’s land between societal boundary lines. The most plot-relevant of these is the gray area between the physical world and the spirit world; Lin-lin’s ‘yin eyes’ allow her to see ghosts and demons even though she is still among the living. But there are plenty other frontiers for her to traverse, too. She is a citizen of Old World China growing up in a modernizing America. She’s an exorcist who feels compassion for the ‘monsters’ she’s meant to destroy. She is a martial artist facing off against gun-toting gangsters. And, most importantly, she’s a woman attempting to earn respect in a male-dominated society. Throughout the fantastical battles with ghosts and confrontations with demons, Boroson never loses the thread of tension which comes with walking these conflicting paths. Lin-lin is a true daughter of nineteenth-century America in that her very character is an amalgamation of insolvable contradictions.
The Girl With Ghost Eyes is a fascinating dip into the rich well of Chinese mythology and a satisfying immigration narrative. Far from an ode to America’s romanticized past, Boroson’s adventure tale is a story about a girl who battles monsters – and unsurprisingly, the most terrifying of these are the ones she doesn’t need ghost eyes to see.