It took me two months to get through The Boat, Vietnamese-born Australian writer Nam Le’s debut collections of short stories, a fact at complete odds with how much I enjoyed it. However, this just means that I had time to savor, a verb that this collection certainly deserves. The Boat consists of seven carefully written stories, all of which revolve around a single character in various settings. The stories are more about character development that plot, though there is a point of conflict in each story around which the narratives revolve. In each you can sense the care that Le gave in writing and the efforts he made to get inside the characters’ heads. A note about each story:
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” takes place in Iowa, and is about a character named Nam Le struggling to write the final piece for a writers’ workshop, in which he struggles with his conflicted feelings about his father and writer’s block. He takes risks, changes his perspective, and comes to understand more about his father, though disastrously.
“Cartagena” is about a Colombian hit man on the verge of a promotion. I didn’t think that I would like this one but it was shockingly revealing, both about the main characters and the drug and crime culture of Colombia.
“Meeting Elise” focuses on a famous artist who is trying to deal with his art and his lost daughter while getting a cancer diagnosis. This was also excellent, but the number of euphemisms for anus got a little
“Halfhead Bay” was a little confusing. Though I enjoyed the story and the perspective of the character, there was a lot of distracting slang and I spent a good amount of the story trying to figure out where it was set, which was annoying. The ending is a little jarring, but probably more honest than what was expected.
“Hiroshima” stands apart from the rest in that it utilizes stream-of-consciousness to follow a young girl in the time leading up to the bomb dropping. One thing that really struck me about this story was what a lot of people would call “brainwashing” and what is really ideology, which Americans spout just as much as anybody but misunderstand in others. This was extremely powerful, no less because I knew what was coming from the first word.
“Tehran Calling” was probably my least favorite of the collection. The focal character is a weak woman who never grows and whom I couldn’t like, and the portrayal of Iran seemed stereotypical (though to be fair, I’ve never been there).
“The Boat” is hands down the most disturbing of the collection. It tells of a girl on a fishing boat escaping from Communist Vietnam and the horrors that occur on board. This isn’t the tale of heroism that another writer might make it, but a brutal story of the truths of what many people have and continue to suffer in the effort to find freedom (ßideology).
This was a powerful collection, and I recommend it to anybody who likes intense looks into characters’ subconscious. Beware: there are no happy endings here, only truth.