If there’s one mandatory read before Halloween, it’d be If I Have to Be Haunted, Miranda Sun’s literary debut. With ghosts, monsters, and discussions of resurrection, the novel artfully blends the supernatural with a Chinese American coming-of-age story.
The coming-of-age portion is by far the strongest, which has to do mostly with Sun’s mastery of character. Cara Tang is a Chinese American teenager who sees ghosts — despite her mother’s disapproval of the family gift — and is constantly in a feud with the town’s most popular boy, Zach Coleson. When Zach suddenly turns up dead, courtesy of a mysterious snake bite, it’s up to Cara as the only living ghost speaker in her town to figure out how to bring him back. As they journey into the liminal world to find the antidote, Cara and Zach realize that there’s a thin line between not only love and hate, but also the living and the dead.
This fantasy-leaning young adult novel isn’t just about ghosts. Although the story itself is fairly predictable, hitting each point of a journey and checking off obstacles in the process, Cara’s Chinese American identity and subsequent related struggles are well-integrated into the story. From Cara’s mother pressuring her to give up her ghost-speaking gift to Cara needing to work with her ghost grandmother, Laolao, to accomplish her mission, Sun makes it clear that the cultural elements don’t take a back seat to the story. Instead, they provide an imaginative lens through which to view one girl’s encounters with the supernatural.
There are indications of intergenerational conflict that once again exhibit Sun’s understanding of emotional arcs. From the beginning, readers are given the information that Cara’s mother resents Cara’s close relationship with Laolao. Both Laolao and Cara’s mother disagree over how Cara should or shouldn’t keep and use her powers. This tension is evident in Cara’s interactions with her family, and they are brought up again in the journey when Cara’s forced to confront the “ghosts,” metaphorically speaking, that she sees but just can’t face.
Aside from exploring Cara’s familial conflicts, If I Have to Be Haunted touches upon the “red string of fate” connecting individuals destined to be together that’s prominent in Chinese mythology. This motif is woven into the way the story unravels, and Sun’s lyrical prose melds well with her inventive use of the red string as a narrative device. There are a few threads of the plot, though, that aren’t clearly explored in the scope of the story.
For example, why did the snake bite Zach in the first place? It’s hinted that something deeper lurks in the snake’s intention, but that could have been communicated more effectively to readers. Moreover, why were the ghosts in the very beginning of the novel looking for Cara at school? Sun plants these developments briefly but doesn’t quite follow up on them to a point where they pay off. It seems like there may have been another plot that was intended there; if these developments were reasoning for a sequel, then they could have been recurring threads for the author to assert the necessity of a continuation.
As for the journey itself, it’s difficult to draw out something that stands out among the typical tropes associated with a journey to another world. Sure, there are near-death situations, battles, and an emergency visit to healers. Although these incidents are suspenseful individually, they do end up feeling rather formulaic and don’t fully enrich the core of the story, which is Cara coming into her ghost-speaking powers.
The romance is a large part of the novel. Described as a “slow-burn hate-to-love romance” by the author herself, it’s obvious that Zach already cares for Cara from the beginning, despite their trivial squabbles at school. These moments when Zach expresses his feelings for Cara, particularly in near-death situations, are abundant, and romance lovers will surely find satisfaction in them. There aren’t that many moments that truly convey the two as enemies as might have been expected; the banter between the two can come across more as flirting instead of actual arguing. A full-out hatred that might have intensified the transition of the relationship isn’t really present. Nevertheless, Zach and Cara do grow closer throughout their journey, and the chemistry imbues the story with a wholesome dynamic.
Sun’s established an impressive origin story of Cara learning how her power can save lives. When it comes to how these powers might grow in the future, If I Have to Be Haunted leaves readers with more open-ended threads that might just come into contact later on — a sequel, after all, could be destiny.