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Nam Le - The Boat, Reviews

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U.S. reviews
Canadian reviews
Australian reviews
U.K. reviews
French reviews


The Globe And Mail review, David Jays


David Jays, 5 July 2008:

"The debut story collection by Nam Le could easily become a cacophony of voices. Just 29, he's Vietnam-born, Australia-raised and spends much of his time in the United States. His central characters range even further: from a teenage gunman in Latin America to a troubled American woman adrift in Iran, a gruff New York painter, a confused Aussie teen and children living in Hiroshima just before the atom bomb falls.

Are these acts of ventriloquism? More like acts of intense imagination. Le ... gets breathlessly close to hopes and fears, to relationships that shift by the second, and brilliantly finds palpable images to match them. His perturbing story about an adolescent hit man in Colombia has to do with tough street smarts, but helps you share a sense of peril that should be beyond the character's years. The young narrator learns that, on the point of death, a fearful man's flesh will go slack at the mouth; he holds a gun for the first time and it gives off 'a smell like a match being lit in a dark room.'

However diverse their characters, these stories share a piercingly subtle sensibility, a register both confident and poetic.

The opening story is misleadingly self-reflective, with its Vietnamese aspirant writer — called, yes, Nam, and named for the homeland his father left behind — resisting the expectation that he'll produce 'ethnic' stories. Enduring an uncomfortable visit from his father, he writes up the older man's experience of surviving a massacre and reaching Australia as one of the Vietnamese boat people, a complicated act somewhere between respect, ambition and defiance. The sullenly blocked writer doesn't realize he's narrating a beautifully written story — doesn't realize, in effect, how much his imagination might contain if only he'd listen to it.

Le's Americans, too, are bound up with their own concerns. "Tehran Calling" tackles the question of exoticism, as Sarah visits the Iranian capital to see her former best friend and find diversion from a failed relationship. What she encounters is alienating, even stomach-turning: a perilous place where people catch drips from a man's bloodied scalp, or gather around a headless sheep carcass. Yet it's not all fearful and foreign: The music of the Tehran night may be 'parched, tattered,' resonant with drums and harrowed ululation, but Sarah also catches 'the theme from Titanic.' Although the country seems 'busy with its own deceptions,' so is Sarah herself. We hover on the very edge of terrible events, but the tale sneaks past terror.

The elderly painter in "Meeting Elise" might have burst straight out of Philip Roth; he's lustful, raging, punching against medical diagnosis and desperate to reunite with his estranged daughter. Le gets to the quick of him, to the way in which damage can become who we are: 'If the hurt's all I have left of her,' Henry says, 'I want to keep it, keep it alive — hurting — because right now I think I need everything I have.' As Henry stumbles from his bathtub and through a fancy-pants Manhattan, the story holds the pugnacious character in a delicate web, and coaxes him through layers of watery metaphor. Henry seems almost to melt, until he's a puddle of rain and sweat, dribbling blood outside a concert hall, listening to iridescent applause that sounds like rain.

There's water, water, everywhere in the closing story, "The Boat." As a vessel crammed with refugees escaping Communist Vietnam labours toward land, the story aches with a terrible thirst, accompanied by hallucination, fever and tormenting memory. This isn't quite the 'ethnic story' that Nam fretted over at the beginning of the collection. It's not about alluring tragedy or easy sympathy. However, it's certainly a great tale of panic and waiting. It opens with a scene of dramatic confusion, the boat caught in retching, pitching terror. A young woman, Mai, is hobbled by an unresolved relationship with her parents, and drawn to a fellow passenger, an arrestingly skinny and impassive boy. Sickness in the parched sun draws out some of Le's most astonishing prose: The boy's skin becomes 'chapped in the pattern of bruised glass,' or, more simply, 'he looked like a burnt ghost.'

Le has such a sense of lyrical precision that he can find it hard to resist grace notes. The conclusion to his opening story is beautiful but aware of its own beauty and portent, equating the hard-won poise of the narrator's relationship with his father to a frozen river, which 'could be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.' Le likes an epiphany, but his nimble, tendrilled perceptions are more interesting left unresolved, drawing readers into a voyage without a compass."

(Click logo on left for full review.)


The Montreal Gazette review, Ian McGillis



The Montreal Gazette, Ian McGillis, 15 June 2008:

"[In] the debut collection by the hotly tipped Vietnamese-Australian-American Nam Le ... the first story — the pithily titled "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" — not only packs a very powerful punch of its own, but does a perfect job of setting up and subverting our expectations for what follows.

Fairly or not, young non-white writers like Le are under a certain unspoken pressure to represent where they come from. It's something Le acknowledges and defuses right from the start, in the aforementioned first story, set in a town in Iowa. 'Ethnic literature's hot,' says a Writers' Workshop teacher to a student who strongly resembles Le, 'and important, too.' The idea is that the young man should write more about Vietnam, and he does, though not in a way he could have planned. Struggling with writer's block and playing uneasy host to his taciturn Vietnamese father, who's visiting from Australia, the young narrator appears to be setting us up for a poignant if somewhat predictable tale of generation gap and culture clash. But the story takes a shocking turn halfway through when, along with the reader, the son learns the full story of the father's wartime experience in Vietnam, where he survived an American-led civilian massacre and later fought alongside the Americans before escaping with his family. By the end, the two are closer together even while the son recognizes how the gulf between their respective lives can never really be bridged: 'We forgive any sacrifice by our parents, so long as it is not made in our name.'

The reader might well assume that Le, having set up a dynamic whose variations could be spun in unlimited ways, would go on to do just that. But he doesn't. Instead, beginning with the second story, we're off on a wild ride across cultures, continents and experience. ... Such scope of subject matter is perhaps not remarkable in itself, accustomed as we are to debut collections that are self-conscious displays of versatility, with stories that can smack of the indulging of creative writing class dares. What places Le above the pack is that, simply, everything he sets his hand to comes up trumps. Surely, we think, a writer can't imagine himself into the mind of a Japanese schoolgirl and an elderly American man with equal authority. But no cracks ever show.

Le adopts a distinct tone and mood for every story, and without resorting to mimicry or showy devices of any kind, he makes every one of them work entirely on its own terms. Especially remarkable is the stories' multi-layered depth: Le often visits global flashpoints and examines the legacy of past wars and injustices, but his stories are just as much about the age-old and timeless themes of family, friendship, integrity. Big questions — Is history sometimes best forgotten? How will people respond when their identity and very survival are under the greatest strain? — are explored on an intimate scale until their ramifications ripple outward and attain universality. That's a feat we're thankful to find once or twice in collections by established writers; in The Boat, it happens seven times over. On the evidence of his debut, there's nothing Nam Le can't do."

(Click logo on left for full review, or here for full Montreal Gazette profile of Nam Le.)




The Hamilton Spectator review, Tim Robinson



Tim Robinson, 5 July 2008:

"The Boat, Vietnamese-Australian-American author Nam Le's much-hyped debut, is a madly captivating collection of short stories, prodigious not merely on account of its seemingly endless breadth, but for its uncommon quality of craftsmanship.

Le's prose is worth every extravagant rave, and the variety of mindsets to which he seems so effortlessly in tune is astonishing. But there is more than a vibrant new vocabulary and imagination on display here. ... In the inspired opener, we meet a young writer named Nam who is struggling with writer's block and an impending deadline, not to mention a distracting visit from his long-estranged Vietnamese father. A cynical suggestion by a classmate to write a story about his family background ('Ethnic literature's hot') leads to a cathartic resolution of both dilemmas, and what starts as a nifty meta-satire of literary commerce ends up a heart-rending meditation on homeland and the fierce intricacies of father-son ties (the ambiguous conflict between parents and children touches most of these stories, in fact).

Le deftly sends up the publishing world's thirst for 'ethnic lit' by taking his own unique experience and making it universal through the emotional wallop of his words. From there, he rips across a staggering array of worlds and wisdom with immediacy, lyricism and emotional urgency.

"Cartagena," a thriller about teenage assassins in the slums of Colombia, is a cinematic tour-de-force. It paints a hellish picture through the weary voice of a man-child who clings to the sanctity of friendship as his only remaining uncompromised ideal. "Hiroshima" is an audacious achievement, a mesmerizing tone poem that taps a Japanese schoolgirl's daydreams in the moments before the bomb is dropped. And the culture-clash drama "Tehran Calling," in which an American woman reunites with an old friend in Iran, is a powder-keg vision of a society at its own throat.

But nowhere is Le's range of vision and depth of understanding more evident than in the book's dazzling centrepiece; a pair of stories polarized in tone and experience yet ingeniously linked. In "Meeting Elise," a cynical, greying New York artist suffers a grotesque waltz of humiliations trying to reunite with his estranged daughter. In "Halflead Bay," an Australian teenager in a tiny fishing town faces off against a vicious bully while negotiating both his own angst and the smothering reality of his ailing mother's impending death. One is a savagely beautiful account of what it means to grow up, and the other is a psychologically astute reading of the alienation and bitterness that sets in once you've traded growing up for growing old. The ease with which young Le swings between the two heartbreaks is revelatory.

[M]ost of the time, The Boat is flawless. When it comes full circle with the title story — a horrific dramatization of the plight of Vietnamese boat people — you realize that Le's fiction is quite like the war that hovers in his inherited history: morally tangled, devastating and savagely beautiful."

(Click logo on left for full review.)



Edmonton Journal review, Candace Fertile

Ottawa Citizen review, Candace Fertile



Candace Fertile, 22 June 2008:

"The seven stories in Nam Le's debut collection are so varied that you may think Le is a pseudonym for seven different writers. But no — this guy is a virtuoso with words, and his subjects range from writing to escaping Vietnam, but trauma is at the heart of every story.

Le's stories are like novels in their intensity and depth, and the variety of subject matter is staggering. If anything links them apart from trauma, it's Le's sympathy for his characters — he reveals their flaws and their humanity and does it in lucid, pitch-perfect prose. What more can a reader ask for?"

(Click logo on left for full review, or here for full Edmonton Journal profile of Nam Le.)



Toronto Star review, Donna Bailey Nurse




Donna Bailey Nurse, 20 July 2008:

"With his first story collection The Boat, Nam Le operates on the theory that ethnic writers ought not to be pigeonholed: They should write about more than their own racial and cultural concerns. Nam Le was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia and now lives in the States. While The Boat does explore his Vietnamese heritage, it also features such far-flung settings as Japan, Colombia, Australia and Iran. His choice of characters and situations is likewise diverse. He describes a human condition defined by violence, illness and oppression; one made bearable through artistic endeavour and family ties.

Violence is everywhere in these stories. "Hiroshima" is set in Japan, just before the bomb. It is fantastically narrated in the stream of consciousness of a little girl whose family been torn apart by war. "Cartegena," a tense and riveting tale, involves a teenage assassin who refuses to obey a command to murder a friend. Instead, he and his friend dream of escaping life on the streets of Medellin for the seaside beauty of Cartegena. Nam Le's depiction of the hilly landscape, including the barrios in all their privation and squalor, is strange and beautiful. The assassin's silent fear of his own inevitable demise — his horrifying entrapment by place and circumstance — produces a terrifying claustrophobia. In "Halflead Bay" the Aussie town bully, responsible for several severe beatings and reputed to have murdered an Asian fisherwoman, is coming after Jamie, the story's teenage protagonist. Jamie is in a panic at this crisis, even as he watches his ailing mother, a painter, slip closer to death. ... [T]he scenes involving a family struggling with devastating illness and encroaching death ring completely true. In "Meeting Elise," a crotchety Manhattan painter grieves the death of his beloved muse and partner. His only true friend is his art dealer. Recently diagnosed with cancer, Henry the painter is desperate to build a relationship with his long-estranged daughter. This practically perfect story gives us the ebb and flow of a real life. Henry's wishes and weaknesses are so banal and sincere, and he strikes us as so horribly, humanly flawed, that he immediately wins our sympathy and devotion."

(Click logo on left for full review.)




Georgia Straight review, Michael Hingston



Michael Hingston, 22 May 2008:

"Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories opens on a wonderfully autobiographical note. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is narrated by a young writer named Nam, frustrated and behind deadline at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His problem? He wants to tell the story of his father’s childhood in rural Vietnam, but doesn’t want to be forever branded an 'ethnic writer'. As one friend of Nam’s puts it: 'I’m sick of ethnic lit ... It’s full of descriptions of exotic food' — a subtly barbed assessment of today’s literary marketplace.

From here, Le disappears as a character, but the author’s underlying fear of being pigeonholed remains palpable throughout The Boat. The stories switch settings — and genres — at every opportunity: from an aging New York painter’s failed attempts to reunite with his daughter, to a schoolgirl stuck at a religious retreat in moments before the atomic bomb is dropped, to teenage hit men in Colombia gathering illegal hand grenades and plotting their biggest mission yet.

All of which would make for a fatally broad range of material if Le weren’t such a versatile and gifted writer. He’s as comfortable describing the vast cardboard-box slums in the Colombian city of Cartagena as he is the crusty dishes in Nam’s sink. More importantly, all of his characters remain entirely distinct from one another, in both personality and dialect.

In “Halflead Bay”, the longest and fullest story, Le deftly captures the intense hive mentality of high-school life in an Australian fishing village. It’s a place where a typical girl’s dress is 'stretched so tight it bit into her thigh', and where one boy is torn between pursuing his lustful impulses and attending to his mother, who is suffering from an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis.

It’s not until the very last story, “The Boat”, that Le dares to mention Vietnam again. ... Either his publisher completely missed the message of the first story, or it was Le’s own choice — perhaps after realizing he had no reason to fear being pigeonholed after all."

(Click logo on left for full review.)



Winnipeg Free Press review, Faith Johnston



Faith Johnston, 18 May 2008

Nam Le was born in Vietnam in 1979, but grew up in Australia. He enrolled in the famous U.S. Iowa Writers' Workshop on scholarship, and recently won the Pushcart prize for best short story published in American literary journals. Given all this — his youth, exotic origins, and accomplishments thus far — Nam's first book, a collection of short fiction, comes with high expectations.

There are seven stories here, most of them very long, and all but one dealing with dramatic events in minute detail. ... Only two of these tales have anything to do with Vietnam. In the first (titled "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice"), a father flies from Australia to spend three days with his son, Nam, in Iowa. They have not seen each other in three years, and before that relations were strained. ... But there is no fairy-tale ending here. It is near-connection but misconnection all the way. This wonderful story is so real that the characters could walk off the page.

In "Cartagena" (the Pushcart Prize winner) we follow Juan Pablo, a 14-year-old Medellin hit man, through the last day of his life. The atmosphere of threat and hopelessness, built detail by hardscrabble detail, is riveting. In "Meeting Elise", Henry Luff never does meet his daughter, Elise, whose mother he abandoned. But his wild and crazy day of waiting is revealing and funny and pitiful, all at the same time. Here is a classic tale of a man who shoots himself in the foot, over and over again. In the shortest piece, "Hiroshima", we eavesdrop on the interior dialogue of a homesick eight-year-old girl who has been evacuated from Hiroshima before the bombing. The irony here is heavy and obvious, but the voice and details are convincing."

(Click logo on left for full review.)



National Post review



National Post, 20 June 2008

"Le's debut collection reads like a suspense novel, his stories crackling with immediacy without losing their cool, focused tone, and his characters drawn with an old master's depth, whether he's writing about Vietnamese refugees, a New York painter, a child vaporized at Hiroshima or Australian surf slackers. A recurring theme is the historic and emotional distances separating parent and child, but Le also evinces a sly side, deftly sending up the publishing world's thirst for 'ethnic lit.' The writing here is filled with grace, texture and humanity."



Chronicle Herald review



Judith Meyrick, 17 Jan 2010

"In voices as varied as the stories they inhabit, Nam Le gives us The Boat, an extraordinary debut collection of short stories which traverses the globe, moving from Japan to Colombia, New York to Iran to Iowa.

"Meeting Elise" tells the story of an aging artist who fell in love with his model, whose 'terminally passive-aggressive wife' left for Russia with their infant child. The last time he saw his daughter, she was 'blanket-wrapped and pillow-sized and hot with fever on [his] apartment stoop.' She is now a famous cellist and he becomes obsessed, driven to find her before he dies. 'Family is family. You only have one shot at it.'

In his title story, "The Boat", we meet Mai, Quyen, Anh Phuoc and Truong, Quyen’s young son who attaches himself to Mai. We called them ‘the boat people’ and watched their desperation from the safety of our living rooms. Le gives them a voice and it is not to be ignored.

Imagination is, of course, the essence of fiction, and the ability to imagine onto the page, to pull the reader in, is what sets authors apart. It is hard to believe Le has not been to these countries, lived the life of an aging painter, hung with teenage hit men in Colombia, or survived the wild ocean on an overcrowded boat of dubious seaworthiness. His imagination soars and takes us with him. There is no respite.

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and grew up in Australia. His short stories have won several awards, and The Boat won The Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award and The Melbourne Prize for Literature. He is the editor of the Harvard Review."



More —




Caroline Skelton's "Top 10 Books of 2008" citation in The North Shore News (12 December 2008)

Jane Thompson's review at Calgary Fast Forward Weekly (31 July 2008)