rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Boat is a debut short story collection by Nam Le. This collection contains 7 stories with settings all over the globe—from Columbia too Australia; from the American Midwest to Vietnam. The author Nam Le has lived all over the world. He was born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, Australia. He later move to America to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Like most story collections, some of the stories were stronger than others. The good ones are stellar and luckily none of the stories sank to the level of being dismal failures. One of the strongest stories was the opening one, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” (that’s a mouthful of a title!), which has a touch of meta-fiction. in this story, Name Le writes about a Vietnamese author (like himself) and the expectations of “ethnic writing”. As I read this story I found myself wondering just how autobiographical it is. The central character is a young Vietnamese man living in Iowa and attending a writing workshop. He finds himself being strongly encourage in the workshop to write of his own cultural experiences since ethnic writing is the hot thing in the literary world at the moment. He prefers to write about various cultures that are not his own. His friend tells him:
“You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
The stories in this collection all seem to follow the themes listed in the title of the initial story: Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice. The stories referenced by the character in the first story also appear in the book. There ARE stories about Hiroshima orphans, Colombian assassins and New York painters with hemorrhoids.
One other stand out story in the collection is “Meeting Elise”, which is narrated by the aforementioned New York painter with hemorrhoids. This painter is planning to meet up with his daughter Elise who he hasn’t seen in over 10 years. The story is haunting and tragic. None of the stories in the collection are what I would call uplifting but they were for the most part very engaging. The stories are more character driven than plot driven and the author does an excellent job of stepping into the shoes of such varied narrators.
Another strong story in the collection was the title story, “The Boat”. This story is about a teenage girl escaping Vietnam on an overcrowded boat during the war. Le skillfully portrays the anguish and confusion of the girl’s experience on the boat and her interactions with her fellow passengers.
The stories in The Boat were all beautifully written and easy to read. I was very impressed with this collection and I hope that Mr. Le publishes something else soon! The Boat was name one of the New York Times Notable Books of 2008.