You may have seen The Ring, and its ilk. It’s possible you’ve explored some of the mythology around the film. But what if you read the story from a different point of view: That of the vengeful ghost? That’s what Rin Chupeco explores in The Girl from the Well, a complicated, multi-layered book that takes the reader from the US to Japan and through a swirling world of myth, folklore, fiction, and fantasy. The story takes on a traditional narrative in a new and different way, which is my favourite kind of storytelling: Not just a retelling, but one that makes the reader view a story from a fresh perspective.
Okiku is a ghost who has stalked the Earth for hundreds of years to punish the murderers of children in brutal, awful ways. She leaves death, destruction, and horror in her wake, even as she frees the spirits of children chained to their killers for weeks, months, or years. When she encounters Tarquin, a mixed-race boy with mysterious tattoos, she feels himself drawn to him, sensing a darker entity that’s haunting him. As Tark faces an escalating series of strange events, Okiku hovers in an attempt to protect him — and the two develop a strange sort of friendship on the basis of their shared knowledge of the ghost world.
The Girl from the Well draws on the story of Bancho Sarayashiki, a myth about love and betrayal. According to the story, the servant Okiku worked for a powerful samurai who became frustrated when she pushed back against his sexual harassment. In retaliation, he tricked her, claiming that she had broken one of the household’s precious ten plates. Despairing, she counted and counted the plates but couldn’t find the tenth (which, of course, he had hidden), knowing that the sentence for damaging his property was death. The samurai offered to suspend the death sentence if she agreed to become his lover, but she refused, and he threw her down a well in fury. Okiku, feeling betrayed and furious, becomes an angry ghost, doomed to haunt the world seeking retaliation — and she’s not a huge fan of the number nine.
While most narratives focus on her as a terrifying ghost, someone to fear and either eliminate or escape, this is a story told from her perspective, one that humanises her experiences and makes her into a sympathetic character. As the bits and pieces of her story, and her past, come out, it becomes evident that she was subjected to a rather rum deal, and you start to understand why she’s become the person — er, ghost — that she is. The Girl from the Well is, in part, about her development of a conscience and her ability to distinguish between different kinds of living people, thus belying the claim that she’s an indiscriminate murderer. In Tark’s case, she’s among those who want to help him purge himself of a truly evil ghost — and she knows that she may be among the only ones who can protect him, thanks for the fact that she can fight the ghost in the supernatural world.
While this book may in some cases be billed as horror, that’s not really accurate, and I don’t think that’s what it’s intended to be. It’s a folklore retelling, and while there definitely are parts that are rather disgusting and terrible, it’s not meant to be frightening. It’s meant to be a study of characters and interactions and family relations and the complexity of human life, complicated by the presence and awareness of supernatural beings and an entire world of both menace and protection. The Girl from the Well is also about the evils of betrayal, of hatred, of denying people their basic humanity.
Okiku may have become a ghost tied to the Earth, but it’s not because she’s innately terrible: Someone made her that way.
As with other books featuring characters of colour (Tark’s mother is Japanese, his father is white), I like to see how the author has explored race and cultural identification. Chupeco herself is ethnically Chinese although she’s mixed-race as well, and she was born and raised in the Philippines, which doesn’t have a speculative fiction community that’s as lively and supportive as the one in the US. While she loved fairytales and retellings, it took her a while to tackle one on her own — and it’s intriguing to see her drawing upon Japanese folklore (which she loves) and setting a story in the US and Japan. In the US, though, it often feels like Tark’s race is glossed over, with other students focusing more on his tattoos than anything else, while in Japan, he stands out as a mixed-race kid who doesn’t know Japanese and isn’t familiar with Japanese culture. His white father, meanwhile, stands out even more.
Balancing depictions of race can be extremely difficult, as you don’t want a character’s race to become all-consuming, but you do want to acknowledge it and explore it. As a reader, I wanted to see a bit more of the tensions a mixed-race kid would experience in US schools and culture — because the US is a country where a kid like Tark would attract attention not just for his tattoos, but for his race. While Chupeco obviously didn’t want to turn the book into a cultural study about race and society, and wanted to focus on Tark himself and the story she was telling, a few more hints here and there would have made the US portion of the book more believable (inasmuch as a book about supernatural elements can be) for me.
Overall, though, this book really intrigued me, drawing me in with the narrative, the writing, and the decision to take a traditional and well-loved myth and play with it in some new and exciting ways. I’m definitely looking forward to more work from Chupeco, and I’m so glad this book found a home so I got to read it.