Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Boat by Nam Le

I don't often reread books but every now and again I will do so. It might be because I want to reread the story or it might be some other form of obligation. Over the last few days I reread The Boat by Nam Le because it was the October book for my book club.

I thought it might be fun to revisit my review of the short story collection that I wrote over three years ago and see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

I thought I would repost my original comments about each story and then add my further thoughts. If you just want to reread my original thoughts without all the added extras then the original review can be found here.

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.

I actually didn't reread the first story in the collection because I had already reread it earlier this year when it was released as a Penguin Shorts e-story. I wrote a whole post on it at that time which you can read here.

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.

I am going to talk a little bit about memories of reading a collection a bit further in relation to one of the other stories. This was probably the story that I remembered most about when I started rereading it. One of the things about reviewing is trying to get the heart of a story or a book without giving too much away. When I look at that sentence above, I couldn't help but think at how inadequate that sentence was. Whilst it does cover a portion of the story, there was so much more that could be said. In that one sentence I could have included that it was about friendship and loyalty and betrayal and violence (good job Le came up with a more succint title than that, unlike the first story that I mentioned above!)

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.

Of all the stories in the collection, I think this is one that I struggled with the most this time around. Nam Le goes from a meta type narrator in the first story, to a young boy in the second story. In this story, we meet an old man - a famous artist who is facing his own demise. He has been separated physically and emotionally from his daughter but now he has just one chance to reconnect.  I am not sure why I found it difficult to warm to the main character. Maybe it was his obsession with his younger lover or his unpleasant behaviour but it was something. And yet, the author still managed to have me empathising with him as the story came to its end.

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.

It is interesting that I chose this one as my favourite of the collection the first time around. It is the biggest story in the collection. As I was reading this I found myself thinking that I couldn't possibly have read this story because I didn't remember a single thing until we got to very near the end. Memory is a funny thing - you would have thought that if it was my favourite then that would make me more likely to remember this story but not the others, but apparently not! I also didn't find myself as moved by this story as I did some of the others. Is that a sign of being in a different mood this time around when I read it, or perhaps even something that has changed within me over the last 3 years. I am not sure but it is interesting to contemplate.
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.
My reaction to this story was similarly very different to my reaction the first time around. Far from being my least favourite I would say that this time it was up there with my favourites. Whilst it was a story that was still difficult to read, I found it incredibly moving and very interesting. It was also the story that prompted nearly all of the bookclub discussion. The discussion talked a lot about WWII prisoner of war experiences that one of the members had heard from her father who was a POW, as well as a pretty in depth discussion about the differences between that war and the current situation that our soldiers find themselves in in places like Iraq. One of our members had actually lived in Hiroshima for a while so it was fascinating to hear her talk about her experiences there, the conversations that she had with people who lived through the dropping of the atom bomb and so much more. 

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.
Not much to say about this one. I guess I don't really get what the point of it was, especially the ending!

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.
This time reading the collection, this was my favourite of the stories. In a few short pages, Nam Le manages to tell us of the harrowing journey a young girl takes on a boat from Vietnam. In addition to what I noted above, there isn't enough food or water and when a storm damages the engine, the boat drifts aimlessley for days. On the overcrowded boat, illness soon becomes the biggest danger, but it isn't the only problem that these people who are desperately seeking a better life face.

I think part of the reason why this story has resonated so much more this time is that over the last couple of years there has been a lot of focus on refugees here. This has been both in terms of those who want to 'stop the boats' but also in terms of programs like Go Back Where You Came From which have attempted to show the kind of dangers that people have experienced in their lives that makes getting on a leaky boat that may or may not make it to countries like Australia a better option than staying in their homelands.

In summary, Nam Le's chameleon like ability to write different characters and settings once again shone brightly, easily standing up to a reread. I did however find myself wondering when we might see a new collection from this author, or maybe a novel, or just something really! I haven't seen anything about any new works but I will be sure to be reading whatever he decides to come out with next.\

Last time I read this I gave it a rating of 4/5 and that hasn't changed this time around!

I also read this book for the following challenge:


  1. This is a book that I want to read, and I have heard a lot of great things about it. I love short stories when they are tightly wound with a good short plot and some suspense, so these sound like they would fit me perfectly.

    1. Heather, it is a very good short story collection.

  2. I like the way you went through and compared your thoughts then and your thoughts now. I've found that when I revisit things, I find something new that I missed. Some things, like algebra, didn't make much sense the first time around in high school, but when my kids started taking algebra, the light bulb came on.
    I know, from the Paris in July meme, that you love everything about France like I do, so I wanted to tell you about my book The Summer of France which is now available Here on Kindle or
    Here on Nook or
    Here in Paperback

    1. Thanks Paulita. It was fun to compare my reactions.

  3. I love this idea of revisiting -- especially because it's a collection of stories. How interesting that your favorites have changed a bit yet your over-all take on the collection is about the same as before.

    1. I think the collection is strong enough to stand up to rereads and to find different things each time without sacrificing the quality of the overall collection.