BookBrowse Reviews Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au

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Spider Love Song and Other Stories

by Nancy Au

Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au X
Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au
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    Oct 2019, 184 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Spider Love Song and Other Stories is an eclectic mixture of distinctive characters and offbeat plots.

"I like when things don't work, but they do," ten-year-old Sophie Chu writes in her journal. When Sophie, whose parents have gone missing in the title piece of Nancy Au's collection Spider Love Song and Other Stories, writes this line, she has just finished explaining how her closet door "doesn't close properly" but "sort of sticks shut." The book as a whole features people whose lives don't work "properly," but who endeavor to make them work anyway.

Au's characters are stubborn and resilient, and they often express these qualities in oddly specific ways. In "Wearing My Skin," a mother recalls how she consumed an entire peach, pit and all, before leaving China to build a new life with her young daughter in the U.S. In "Louise," a woman finds herself in a communication breakdown with her wife, who, in making a case for adopting a duck they encounter in a city park, declares, "You can't marry someone, tell them you don't want a baby, and then take away their only duck." In "Spider Love Song," Sophie continues wearing the elephant Halloween costume she had on the day her parents disappeared for the following three years. The absurd nature of these characters' approaches to life casually sidesteps societal expectations surrounding love, grief and loneliness, while infusing their stories with originality and individuality.

While the collection contains plenty of funny and unforeseen moments, it never comes across as simply trying to be subversive or draw laughs. Its off-kilter approach to realism, which occasionally includes elements of magic and fantasy, makes space for characters to tackle personal situations with power born of their own experience. In "How to Become Your Own Odyssey, or The Land of Indigestion," nine-year-old Edmund Wong at first strives to emulate his sleepwalking and sleep-eating father, who (supposedly) goes on dream adventures that cause him to ransack the refrigerator and leave messes on the kitchen floor for his pregnant wife to clean up in the morning. However, in attempting his own late-night food raid, Edmund begins to empathize with his mother and confront the cost of these escapades.

Many of the characters in Spider Love Song are women and children in the Chinese American immigrant community (see Beyond the Book) who attempt to fight patriarchal or white supremacist structures. While this might sound depressing, the tone of their stories is often triumphant. In "She Is a Battleground," Au describes an eighty-year-old Chinese woman, who some neighborhood boys make the mistake of harassing, in words that would make any woman's enemies wither to insignificance:

She is sex. She is useful poison. She is a survivor of wars. She is a dream. She is a sarcastic beast.

Au blends a lyrical style, like that above, with more matter-of-fact prose. Her stories have a purely aesthetic draw, but even those that are shorter and more poetic work to incorporate interesting plot arcs. Some stories evince a more natural momentum than others, but they all lead the reader to new territory, often stopping on unexpected notes.

The pieces in Au's book are satisfying enough to read individually, but the central role played by the title story really elevates the collection as a whole. "Spider Love Song" hasn't only given its name to the book; it serves as its beating heart. The closing of the story, which employs a vivid and surprising flashback, feels like the emotional climax of the collection. It lingers throughout the remaining stories and embraces the previous ones retroactively, providing a well-earned sense of continuity.

Like Sophie's closet door, Spider Love Song and Other Stories might not work the way it's "supposed to," or the way you would it expect it to, but that only adds to the sense of exhilaration you feel when it works all the same.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review first ran in the November 13, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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