When my grandfather passed last September, it sparked a certain amount of conversation with my parents and husband. Where would you want to be buried? How? Where do you want to visit me after I die? Should we write this down? These things are inevitable — funerals, planning for more funerals — but the line of questioning also made me realize how attached I am to things of this earth: my parents, my siblings, my husband, the cat, the house we live in, the blankets on our bed, the clothing on my back, and on, and on.
In all my reading, I’ve never felt these attachments as keenly as I did upon opening Paige Clark’s debut, She Is Haunted, and finding “Elisabeth Kübler-Rose.” In this first of Clark’s stunning story collection, a woman gives her dog, her cat, and her mother to God in exchange for a life with her partner and their child. The desperate calm in the narrative voice struck me. It left me haunted by the things I will eventually lose, either by my own choice or fate, and the ways I may try to cope with those losses. She writes, “I’ll miss the dog, but I’m counting my blessings. At our last appointment, the doctor said my baby is as big as a pineapple. I’ll name her Eve.”
This is not the only instance of loss affecting Clark’s characters in this collection. Set all over the world — Los Angeles, New York City, Melbourne — I felt that same quality of desperation again. It ducked and wove itself into each episode of broken connections, of yearning, and of wavering identities. A woman lets her hair grow long after enduring an abusive, jealous mother in “Why My Hair Is Long.” Another woman attempts to become a vegetarian for another man shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend in “Private Eating.”
These stories tend to stay grounded in realism, though a few have a somewhat dystopian quality to them, which only serves to make the characters feel more isolated. This is especially apparent in “Gwendolyn Wakes,” a story about a woman who works for a teleservice that coaches spurned lovers through the steps to repairing a failed relationship; in “Amygdala,” in which Eliza has her left frontal cortex removed in order to live comfortably at the end of the world; and in the strange and poignant “A Woman in Love,” where recently divorced Bettie clones the dog she lost in the custody battle with her ex, Minnie, only to find that the clones don’t measure up with the original.
With a steady narrative voice, Clark is able to show the many, often comical and irrational, sides of personal grief. Coping with a loss looks different on everyone. Whether it manifests into jealousy, regrets, insecurity, or plain old superstition, it is easy to relate to these situations and these characters, all of whom have a clear identity and way in the world. From an injured ballet dancer jealous of her husband’s ballet partner, to a daughter unable to connect with her brother and mother, to a high school student aiming for a top prize, She Is Haunted boasts a range of female narrators, and, though it’s not always apparent in the stories themselves, Clark has stated that each character is Asian American.
In a recent interview with The Observer, Clark said that this was very intentional; as a Chinese/American/Australian writer, it is important to her that she write from this perspective, but she also “want[s] that to be something where I don’t have to do that work, that I can let these other stories just sit there.” As someone who identifies as Asian American, I appreciate this approach. It was never a caricature of what it is to be Asian American, though that experience was still present in the tangible ways — daughters defying their immigrant mothers while still wanting to be seen by them, showing love to a grieving friend in the gift of bottomless bowls of soup, and correcting antiquated terms like “Chinaman” and “oriental” in polite conversation.
This quality of longing is ever-present in the collection, shaped by the identities of Clark’s narrators, by the grounded, relatable inner monologues, and by the isolated, sometimes fantastic settings. She Is Haunted is ultimately a profound study in what makes a person ache, the ways they prepare for it, and the things they do to soothe it.
She Is Haunted
By Paige Clark
Two Dollar Radio
Published May 17, 2022