[Review] “Ghosts in the Flesh: Marshall Moore’s Inhospitable” by Pinky Lui Chung-Man

{Written by Pinky Lui Chung-Man, this review is part of Issue 43 (April 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Marshall Moore, Inhospitable, Camphor Press, 2018. 302 pgs.

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Ghosts are real in Marshall Moore’s Inhospitable. Either as the spirits of the departed or as a psychological shadow within us; we are all haunted and unable to move on from the past. In Moore’s novel about Lena Haze and her husband Marcus leaving their life in North Carolina to renovate a hotel in Hong Kong, the past catches up as ghosts that are hungry for blood. Moore inherits from and joins in the local literary superstitious tradition, with Lilian Lee’s classic ghost story Rouge serving as a model; he takes on the supernatural fascination with an old Hong Kong neighbourhood, giving it an American twist. It is a tale of two cities of ghosts—inhabited by spirits, Hongkongers and gweilos (鬼佬).

I must confess the initial doubt I felt towards Inhospitable when I found out that it, a story that takes place mostly in Hong Kong, was written by an American. It is always touchy when a culture is translated into another language. In the case of Hong Kong, while our history as a city is relatively short in the grand scheme of things, our rich past as a quaint fishing village, then a colony and now the vibrant harbour of lights and commerce definitely offers challenges to even the most gifted writers. But even with this scepticism, I was completely possessed by the claustrophobic chaos of central Wan Chai that enwraps readers from the very first chapter and continued to be amazed by Moore’s keen perception of the city from Queen’s Road to the market of Sham Shui Po. Being an outsider in Hong Kong, Lena is lost in a city packed with ghosts that speak a language unintelligible to her; yet in a funny turn, she is literally called a ghost in a metropolis that, while diverse and colourful, remains Cantonese dominated culturally and linguistically. From the sardined MTR to the relentless humidity, Inhospitable presents the claustrophobia of the city through its verbal jungle of concrete, the complexity of its characters and the ghosts of our past. It also presses into the hearts of its readers.

Reading Inhospitable will be a personal experience for everyone. A reader may choose to focus on the ghosts and get spooked or choose to acknowledge the haunting personal traumas that accompany all these otherworldly shadows. Using ghosts as an analogy, Moore calls for a séance to expose the unspoken—violence, homophobia, death and guilt. The weight carried by the novel and its characters is relatable; there is always one significant event that marks a “before” and “after,” such as falling in love, having children or losing a parent. For Lena, it is not so much an event, but a person. Alice, a malicious child with a We Need to Talk About Kevin vibe both in life and death, enjoys making Lena’s childhood a living hell and her home inhospitable. Although these events are only told in two chapters, their effects are subtly teased throughout an intertwining narrative that makes this novel a page-turner. Moore’s intricate and enticing storylines are all tied to one central theme—the sins of the family. Although the main plot revolves around the renovation of the Olympia, a hotel inherited by Marcus Haze and infested with ghosts, the deadly charm of this novel belongs to horrific realities embodied by ghosts, both as apparitions or in the flesh.

Each ghost story is tragic in its own way and demands to be acknowledged before reaching any resolution. While Inhospitable focuses on the story of Lena learning to cope with Hong Kong, it also offers all the characters journeys in which they come to terms with their past. Nor does it shy away from discussing the past, particularly of Hong Kong’s colonial history. Wing, the ghostly antagonist, highlights the novel’s acute awareness of political climates, providing a potent critique of what people refuse to recognise and react to. Moore draws on the Nanking massacre and the Battle of Hong Kong against the Japanese to weave Wing’s tragic story, a short and miserable life that is destroyed by the greed of Marcus’ great-grandparents who ran brothels for the Japanese soldiers during the occupation, the same people who annihilated his city and family in Nanking. While Lena and Isaac can see ghosts with their yin eyes (I particularly enjoy the hungry ghost nicknamed Mrs. Tong Who Swallowed Wrong), the immeasurable and indescribable pain that Wing suffers can only be temporarily understood through possession. Wing embodies historical wrongdoings that will probably never be addressed, but at least Moore’s Chinese inferno court (imagine my surprise when the court speaks English to accommodate their American witnesses!) sends this mad avenging ghost back to the underworld and lets the sins of the dead stay dead.

Stepping away from the main evil of the novel, let’s move onto the living ghosts of Isaac and Claire, two of Lena’s friends, who may appear more realistic and sympathetic for readers. Haunted not by the deceased but the living, they take the novel back to a reality that is for those who suffer it far more terrifying than any marauder. Homophobia is a constant malice, as Isaac ignores his “Christian” parents who press conversion therapy on him out of a distorted love for their sick gay son. In a city that refuses to discuss LGBTQ issues, Isaac is trapped in a purgatory where he will always be a ghost, alienated even by his own family. While Isaac changes his hair colour every other week to find himself through self-expression, Claire decides to lose herself in a foreign city. At first, the middle-age American woman with a “glimmer of expatriate smugness” seen commonly on Hong Kong Island is unsympathetic until we come to know her through her ghosts—a broken American running away from a home who sent her husband to die in Iraq and her son to Afghanistan. In such a turbulent novel, the one scene that truly tugged at my heart is when Claire desperately seeks any companionship on the anniversary of her son’s death; she is damned to be stuck on this earth as a ghost in the flesh wishing to die. Anyone who has lost a loved one will understand the agony of living on. While the Hazes and Isaac are plagued by ghosts, they are just what Claire wants to see—a flicker of lights, a purring of a shadowy cat, any sign that shows death leading to somewhere at all.

If you let Marshall Moore’s Inhospitable spook you into checking for ghosts around you, also get ready to be rewarded with a melancholic, funny and enjoyable read. Maybe we are all just ghosts in flesh waiting for our turn to pass through the threshold of life to be judged and ultimately reunited with someone we love. I know that at least when I was reading the novel, part of me wished to see the familiar feline shadow (next to my three very healthy cats) that I have been missing every day for the past five years.

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Pinky Lui Chung-Man is currently an MPhil student of English Literary Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Her research interests include feminist criticism and twentieth-century literature. She is currently working on a thesis focusing on Henry Miller and the suppression of desires. She graduated with BA in English at CUHK in 2017 followed by an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies awarded by the University of Hong Kong in 2018.

 

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