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'We Are A Haunting' is a stunningly original, beautiful novel of devotion

Cover of We Are A Haunting
Astra House

In the prologue to Tyriek White's debut novel, We Are a Haunting, Colly speaks to his mother, Key, who died unexpectedly, leaving him in a constant state of grief and rootlessness. "You were just gone one morning," he says. "And I know it sounds like I blame you but I don't."

"Yes, you do," his mother replies.

Key, who regularly appears to her son, may have a point. Mourning is inextricable from confusion; we blame the dead, we blame ourselves, we blame the world for being what it is, a place where endings are the only constant. White's book, which switches perspective between Colly and Key and goes back and forth in time, is a gorgeous novel about loss, survival and community.

Colly is a high school student growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. The loss of his mother has traumatized him, and time has failed to ease the pain: "I had never stopped crying," he observes. "I just did it quietly." He lives with his father, a loving but taciturn construction worker who's dealing with his wife's loss in his own way, taking extra work to make up for the lost income.

Colly drifts through his life; he's somewhat engaged, but troubled. He gets kicked out of school after a fight, but finds some meaning in an internship at an art museum. Through it all, he is visited by his mother's spirit, able to have conversations with her. He finds himself retreating inward after his loss: "These days I keep looking for myself in books. I can't see anything out my window at night and I choose my friends too wisely. It is easier to talk to you in the early hours, when my timeline is asleep. More beautiful, you feel. The books are the only things that prove to me we belong to the treble of the universe."

Colly's gift of speaking to the dead comes naturally to him — Key had it, too. She worked as a birth doula, but found herself connecting with her community in other ways, acting as something of a medium, helping friends and neighbors communicate with loved ones they'd lost. But this comes at a psychic cost to her: "The problem was that the ghosts stayed with me. Each one left a shadow under my eye. They stood where I found them. They looked at me for longer than it took to remember where I'd met them."

Key is advised by her own mother, Audrey, who also has the gift. After Key dies, Audrey is trying her best not to get evicted from the public housing apartment she and Key used to live in. Her experience — and those of their neighbors — inform Colly's ultimate decision on what he wants to do with his life.

The structure of We Are a Haunting is inventive; the switching of viewpoints makes it feel like an extended conversation between Colly and Key. And that's essentially what it is — Colly has unanswered questions, while Key wants to share her stories with her son, hoping they will provide the young man with the answers he's desperate to get.

The conversation can be both wrenching and hopeful, often at the same time. "If I never knew you, perhaps I'd still be who I was before you died," Colly says at one point. "I would never do the hard work of looking beyond myself to see others suffering along with me, that the world and the human condition were threaded around the work of community, our care for one another."

White doesn't overplay the gift that the family members share; their communications with those who have died all come across as natural, the kind of thing that could happen to anyone. It's a fascinating take on magical realism, which White clearly realizes; he name-checks Isabel Allende's classic The House of the Spirits at one point.

White's characters are masterfully drawn, and his use of language is brilliant. He does an amazing job having mother and son describe what it means to live with their gift: "It's like I exist all at once, but I can't keep up," Key says at one point, while Colly reflects, "I am misplaced, lost in moments I believe to be linear."

This is a stunningly original and beautiful novel of devotion, a book that gives and gives as it asks us what it means to be part of a family, of a community. Early novels like this don't come around very often; this one brings to mind titles like Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. It's an absolute triumph.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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