White Ghost Girls, Alice Greenway, Grove Atlantic Inc, 2006, 168 pp
An impressive first novel. I may never have heard of it if not for independent bookstores. One of my favorite local independents, Portrait of a Bookstore, in Toluca Lake, had an author event with Alice Greenway. She was a nervous speaker, but the excerpt she read hooked me and I bought her book.
Two sisters, Kate and Frankie, have been parked in Hong Kong with their mother, while their father photographs the Vietnam War. Kate tells the story from the perspective of a grownup looking back on her life as a teen. The author perfectly captures the viewpoint of a 12 and 13 year old girl. Kate says that it is Frankie's story but it is also very much Kate's.
You know from the beginning that it will end in some kind of tragedy, but you never know exactly what until almost the end of the book. Kate and Frankie's mother is a painter. She hates being in Hong Kong instead of her New England home. She is almost unconscious in her dreaminess, her loneliness for her husband, her fears for his life and his faithfulness to her. The girls are mostly cared for by a Chinese nanny; a bitter old woman who is a refugee from Mao's communist regime and who believes wholly and completely in a Chinese saint. The girls are taken to mass occasionally by their mother, but they believe much more in the Chinese saint.
Frankie is a year older than Kate; reckless, wild and daring. No one can handle her, so Kate decides that she is responsible for her sister. They live for their father's infrequent visits, compete for his attention when he is home and play Vietnam War games of their own imaginings when he is away.
The writing is amost like Haiku. Fragments of sentences, unfolding the story in flashbacks and dreamlike sequences, describing the setting so well that you smell it, feel the heat, hear the cacophony of Hong Kong. Reading this book was like eating a fine, flavorful meal. I savored every page and was sorry when it was over. When I eat such a meal, I don't brush my teeth before bed because I want to taste those flavors all night. That is how I felt at the end of White Ghost Girls.