Violet Kupersmith began composing these nine short stories as a student at Mount Holyoke College, inspired by her Vietnamese grandmother's oral traditions (see 'Beyond the Book'). So perhaps there is a trace of herself in the protagonist of the purely dialogical first tale, "Boat Story." An indolent American high school student pesters her grandmother for a juicy account of escaping Vietnam: "your boat person story? Jackpot. Communists! Thai pirates! Starvation! That's an A-plus story." But Grandma tells a ghost story instead: when their houseboat hit a storm, she and her husband saw a half-skeletal figure walking towards them across the sea. The incident left a sense of disaster deferred "On that stormy day the spirits did not take us, but they wrote our names down in their book and we knew they would eventually come collecting." Grandma ends on a rhetorical question: "Did we ever really escape?" That hint of the inevitability of fate will reverberate through the stories that follow.
Indeed, most of Kupersmith's characters are trapped by accidents of personal and national history. They bear the scars of life's misadventures, like Cong the Calligrapher in "One-Finger," who owes his trigger finger to a girl he accidentally shot when he was a soldier; or Sister Emmanuel from "The Red Veil," whose sunglasses conceal her burnt-out eye socket and clairvoyant past. Sometimes characters' bodies look deceptively normal but hide supernatural abilities. In "Turning Back," Phuong finds an elderly man naked by a dumpster. Desperate to find clothing before daybreak, he confesses that he frequently transforms into a python, and has only just changed back. Back in Vietnam he once crushed a village girl; even here in Houston, his metamorphoses threaten public safety. Fleeing, Phuong muses, "all I can think of is how much the highway resembles a snake coiling around the entire city."
That subtle contrast between the natural world and the manmade runs parallel to the dichotomy between Vietnam and America: the ancient Asian culture seems organic and languid, compared to America's fast-paced decadence. As the grandmother from the first story deplores, "Everyone is too busyso American! Always working, working". In "Skin and Bones," Mrs. Tran sends her Americanized daughters back to the motherland to appreciate their real heritage and be weaned off a junk food addiction. "Vietnam was Fat Camp," Kupersmith recaps (in one of many terrific one-liners). Instead, in an eerie "Hansel and Gretel" twist, the girls learn that food and truth-telling are not always an equal exchange. Even the book's title reinforces the frequent combination of the exotic with the domestic; the natural with the constructed.
Many stories, even those with elements of soul-stealing and shape-shifting, tread a fine line between creepy and comic. Perhaps the best example of the tragicomic tone is "Reception," which introduces the title locale. Narrator Phi works the Frangipani Hotel reception desk because he has good English, but he feels no loyalty "Swanky name. Shitty place." Napping in one of the rooms, he wakes to a leak over his head. Upstairs he finds a young woman, Tien, lying fully clothed in an overflowing bathtub. Is he dreaming? Whoever or whatever she is, the girl is desperately thirsty and claims to know Phi's dead father. They exchange some flirtatious banter, but when Tien makes a peculiar request, Phi starts to wonder whether she might not be a vengeful ghost after all.
Of the remaining stories, the deliciously sinister "Little Brother" has elements of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, recast with a hitchhiker and a long-distance truck driver; while "Guests" shows a blonde consulate worker forming an intimate connection with a Vietnamese car mechanic. (Their liaison returns us, briefly, to the Frangipani Hotel.) The latter story is the only one whose uncanny aspect I could not buy. It works better as a straightforward contemporary story in the vein of Jonathan Franzen or Tash Aw as an enjoyably realist interlude between magical stories.
My main misgiving about the stories is that together they do not necessarily make a clear statement. Perhaps my mistake was to look for an overarching message, instead of just reading them as disparate fairy tales. As Sister Emmanuel cautions, "I have no answers. All I have is a story...You may take what you like from it; look for a moral if you can." Still, the stories are all, separately, accomplished and vividly imagined. Kupersmith's wit is effortless, and she employs a particularly impressive mixture of first- and third-person approaches. Her knowledge of Vietnamese history, both ancient folktales and post-War reconstruction, is masterful, and she so carefully interweaves this material with her storylines that nothing ever seems superfluous.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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