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The Boatby Nam Le
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"From a Colombian slum to the streets of Tehran, seven characters in seven stories struggle with very particular Swords of Damocles in Pushcart Prize winner Le's accomplished debut. In 'Halflead Bay,' an Australian mother begins an inevitable submission to multiple sclerosis as her teenage son prepares for the biggest soccer game of his life. The narrator of 'Meeting Elise,' a successful but ailing artist in Manhattan, mourns his dead lover as he anticipates meeting his daughter for the first time since she was an infant. The opening 'Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' features a Vietnamese character named Nam who is struggling to complete his Iowa Writer's Workshop master's as his father comes for a tense visit, the first since an earlier estrangement shattered the family. The story's ironies — 'You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing,' says a fellow student to Nam — are masterfully controlled by Le, and reverberate through the rest of this peripatetic collection. Taken together, the stories cover a vast geographic territory (Le was born in Vietnam and immigrated to Australia) and are filled with exquisitely painful and raw moments of revelation, captured in an economical style as deft as it is sure." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Ambitious and confident, these seven stories rise from diverse cultures and are filtered through characters of radically different sensibilities. Nam Le combines research and dreaming in a wonderfully wide range of imagined worlds. But he has set himself a difficult task: moving us with personal grief against the backdrop of historical disaster. In the title story, 16-year-old Mai... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) flees Vietnam after the communist victory. She buys passage in the stinking hold of an overcrowded junk. Adrift for many days, people die of thirst and are thrown to the sharks. When Truong, a little boy, dies with land at last in sight, Mai is stunned with sorrow. The boat people's story is one whose horror we already know. We have a sense of its epic scale. We're already sad, already moved. Only through art that's intimate, patient and precise might we be made to care about particular knots — Mai's grief, Truong's death — in this great winding-sheet. In this, his first published book, Le does not quite manage that. However harrowing, the sufferings of his refugees earn no sympathy beyond that we already feel for people in their circumstances. Why does treating the child's death as tragic make it seem sentimental instead? Because the value of this particular life — as distinct from the lives of all children, all people — has never been persuasively shown. Similarly, "Tehran Calling" can't break free from its vivid historical background. Sarah, the American protagonist, flies to Tehran to visit her friend Parvin, an Iranian women's rights activist. At a meeting of political dissenters, she witnesses an argument over whether an inflammatory play should be staged on a Muslim holiday. Later, at a rally, the activists are beaten by religious vigilantes. We've read of such outrages, and already know what we think of them. To mark the story as Sarah's, Le makes her the shaken survivor of a romance back in the United States. But that subplot never connects with events in Tehran. The story's great achievement is cultural portraiture, with Sarah as observer: portraiture of such hue and brightness that, posed against it, the characters barely catch the light. No historical background could be more blinding than the start of atomic warfare, and that's what the author takes on in "Hiroshima," which is told from the point of view of a third-grade girl, her voice full of jingoistic slogans. The artistic task here is immense: to make the bomb become part of the story of the child, rather than — as historians tell it — vice versa. For of course we know what's at stake. As we wait for the fateful B-29, we hurry through the little girl's prattle about patriotic duty. In other stories, Le does better by inventing his contexts. "Halflead Bay," the longest piece, feels more relaxed than the stories mentioned above, less program-driven. It's a loose-jointed, coming-of-age story set in Australia (where the author, Vietnamese by birth, was raised). Jamie has a problem at home — his mother is dying — and one at school: Pretty Alison flirts with him, so he must fight her thug of a boyfriend. The buildup to the fight is suspenseful, though the story would come more fully alive if we knew more of what Jamie thinks and feels. The protagonist of "Meeting Elise" is an artist with colorectal cancer, mourning his dead mistress while he yearns to see his long-lost daughter. The latter refuses to meet him, though: She breaks a dinner date, then forbids him to attend her cello performance at Carnegie Hall. Handsomely tuxedoed, he heads there anyway, but meets only with heartbreak. Though these disparate elements are forced together with some bruising, their intensity makes this the collection's finest story. "Cartagena," a tough-guy tale, finds a secure balance between characters and backdrop. Narrated by a 14-year-old Colombian assassin, it's an exciting adventure with underworld derring-do and a trapdoor plot. Finally, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" is the collection's foray into metafiction. A character bearing the same name as the author, attending the same writing program, writes about his father's life as a My Lai survivor, and the father, who has come on a visit, burns the typescript. With any luck, this talented writer (the real Le) is now done with fiction inspired by critical theory. "There's no place that's not strange to us," Le has said in an interview. "Fiction makes strange even the places we think we know." It's true. And he writes best about the places whose strangeness he discovers himself, where history and headlines have left no footprint, raised no flag. Reviewed by Jonathan Penner, author of the story collections 'Private Parties' and 'This Is My Voice', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[R]emarkable....[Le's] sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A polished and intense debut story collection of astonishing range....Consummately self-assured." Kirkus Reviews
"Le writes rawly rigorous stories that capture entire worlds; each character is distinctive and fully fleshed out, each plot eventful as a full-length novel but artfully compressed. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"You may never have heard of Nam Le, but with the publication of his first collection of short stories...you can expect to hear much more about him in the future....Not yet 30, he is already an extraordinarily accomplished and sophisticated writer." San Francisco Chronicle
"I've been telling friends about The Boat for weeks now, saying 'This guy's got it.' Now I'm telling you. Pass it on." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Readers of Philip Roth and Andre Brink, as well as those who enjoy complex and emotion-charged short fiction, will devour this book." Booklist
In this stunningly inventive fiction debut, stories transport readers from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran, from a fishing village in Australia to the South China Sea.
About the Author
Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He has received the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and fellowships from the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review, he has published work in Zoetrope: All Story, A Public Space, Conjunctions, One Story, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. He divides his time between Australia and the United States.
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