Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Boat by Nam Le

A stunningly inventive, deeply moving fiction debut: stories that take us from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran; from New York City to Iowa City; from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea, in a masterly display of literary virtuosity and feeling.

In the magnificent opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” a young writer is urged by his friends to mine his father’s experiences in Vietnam—and what seems at first a satire of turning one’s life into literary commerce becomes a transcendent exploration of homeland, and the ties between father and son. “Cartagena” provides a visceral glimpse of life in Colombia as it enters the mind of a fourteen-year-old hit man facing the ultimate test. In “Meeting Elise,” an aging New York painter mourns his body’s decline as he prepares to meet his daughter on the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut. And with graceful symmetry, the final, title story returns to Vietnam, to a fishing trawler crowded with refugees, where a young woman’s bond with a mother and her small son forces both women to a shattering decision.

Brilliant, daring, and demonstrating a jaw-dropping versatility of voice and point of view, The Boat is an extraordinary work of fiction that takes us to the heart of what it means to be human, and announces a writer of astonishing gifts.
Last year there was a great deal of excitement around this collection of short stories, culminating to being awarded at least one major literary prize (The Dylan Thomas Award). The author, Nam Le, was born in Vietnam, came to Australia as a child, and has lately been splitting his time between Australia, America and soon in the UK as well. We definitely claim him as an Aussie!

Nam Le has a chameleon like quality to his writing. In one story he is a struggling writer dealing with the visit of his father, in another he is a teenage assassin in the barrios of Columbia, and then again as a young woman visiting her friend in Tehran. He really doesn't miss a beat no matter whose voice he is telling the story in.

In Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, the voice is that of a writer in his late 20s who is struggling to meet the deadline for an essay that is due, and with the visit by his father. Despite being of Vietnamese our writer has chosen to try and avoid telling the refugee stories that he knows, but during this visit by his father he gets to hear at least one more story of how his dad came to be living in Australia.

Having read that first story, it was something of a surprise to realise that the next story, Cartagena, is told from the point of view of a 14 year old hit man from the barrios of Columbia who needs to face up to the consequences of at least some of his actions.

Meeting Elise is another complete change of pace. This time the story is written from the perspective of an older man who is fast coming face to face with his mortality. He is hoping to meet up with his estranged daughter, but there is nothing at all certain in the arrangements.

The fourth story is probably my favourite, Halflead Bay. The main character is a young boy who is trying to deal with his mother's serious illness, and with the budding attraction he feels to Alison, who just happens to be connected with the town bully. My teaser from Teaser Tuesday came from this story.

If I had to pick my least favourite of this collection it would probably be Hiroshima. Le once again assumes a female voice, this time a young girl who is living in Hiroshima in the days before the end of WWII. Despite saying that it was my least favourite it was still a very poignant story, especially as the young girl comments about being able to differentiate between a squadron of planes flying overhead, and the war time slogans such as "do without until victory". One question that this story did make me think of is whether there are any historical fiction novels that are out there that speak about the Japanese WWII experience. There are a few that are set in Germany, but I don't know of any set in Japan about the normal Japanese persons experience.

In Tehran Calling, a young woman is trying to escape her broken romance and goes to visit her best friend who is now living in Tehran, and who is agitating for women's rights. Sarah and her friend Parvin had been somewhat estranged, but Sarah sees this as a chance to rectify that, but her visit to Tehran surprises her in many ways.

The final story in this collection, The Boat, is the story of a young girl who is trying to escape from Vietnam as one of the boat people. The boat is barely seaworthy, and very overcrowded, and it isn't long before the journey becomes perilous in many ways.

If you are looking for a short story collection, then this is certainly one to consider.

This is one of my reads from the Book Awards Reading Challenge II.


  1. This sounds SO up my alley! And your key story is scary. :/ I'm glad you changed the locks!

  2. I have been meaning to pick this one up for soooo long - I haven't really heard a bad thing about it.

  3. i love short stories--especially ones that are told as well as these seem to be! i love each snynopsis and am going to check this book out to see if i can use any of the stories in my classroom. thanks!

  4. I'm much more open to reading short stories now so am of course on the lookout for more to add to the list - this one is going on it! Thanks for the review :)

  5. Excellent review Marg! I wonder too about stories set in Japan during WWII. You always see stories set in Germany or Eurpoe in general. That would be interesting perspective.

  6. Wonderful review Marg! This one is on my TBR.

  7. This one sounds like a very powerful collection. I'm adding it to my list!

  8. I can't believe I haven't heard of this book! It sounds like I would LOVE it. Thank you for the review! This is going straight onto Mt. TBR!