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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 Australian review, Tim Johnston


Tim Johnston, 7 June 2008:

"The Boat is a revelation: a bright light in the dim sky of modern short-story writing. Nam Le brings a vigorous and exciting new voice to a discipline that has become more and more inward looking and abstruse in recent years.

He combines an Australian joy in the hard realities of this world with a newcomer's delight in the possibilities inherent in the raw strangeness of the English language. In that there is an echo of Joseph Conrad, whose Polish roots also allowed him to open a new window on a language that is for so many dulled by familiarity. Le savours the heft and value of words, and he makes his imagery work hard for its inclusion. Often, it is the fuel that powers the trajectory of the stories. ... But Le has developed a lightness of touch that prevents the language from overpowering the narrative. In that, his work is an antidote to the modern short-story style, with its pointillist obsession with minute detail that all too often merges to become a slick of irrelevancy, miring the reader in an eternal overcast of pregnant nuance that seems unable to give birth to any sort of narrative, linear or otherwise.

That is not a criticism that can be levelled at Le's work; things happen in his stories. The characters are strong, and they grow and change in the course of the stories. There are seven stories in The Boat, and there is an element of the young writer testing his limits. He takes on the personas, among others, of a youthful killer in a South American shanty town, an adolescent losing his innocence in coastal Australia, a young Vietnamese girl on a drifting boat trying to escape her homeland, and a Japanese schoolgirl in Hiroshima during the dying days of World War II. All the stories are told from the perspective of the main characters, a risky technique that Le manages to pull off with aplomb. Each of them has a distinctive style. For instance, the primary school-age girl in Hiroshima parrots wartime propaganda and her father's uncertainties: she is unable fully to understand either, but aware that both have some nebulous significance. It is an exuberant and exhilarating performance.

There is a sadness at the core of Le's work. If there is a theme running through The Boat, it is that we only realise the real value of our relationships when it is too late to save them, and the living and dying that we do is ultimately a solitary, if not solipsistic, endeavour. Almost all the stories are, one way or another, about the end of life, and the central characters emerge empowered, if disillusioned.

The Boat is a tour de force that marks the flowering of a new talent who has the potential to reinvigorate the short-story genre after its emasculation at the hands of a thousand creative writing courses. Le is a writer who combines a rare appreciation of the possibilities of language with an understanding of the importance of narrative, and it is a combination that has a little bit of magic about it."

(Click logo on left for full review, or here for The Australian's profile of Nam Le.)


HEAT Magazine review, Peter Craven



Peter Craven, HEAT Magazine, August 2008:

"No book in recent literary memory by a young Australian writer has created the same kind of impact as Nam Le's The Boat. Here is a writer in his twenties, born in Vietnam and brought to Melbourne when he was a year old, who has succeeded in making his debut with a book of stories that come with blurbs from Helen Garner, Junot Díaz and Andrew Solomon, and who has got the approval of the redoubtable Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. The Boat is not simply the next one in the nest who wants to glitter so. This is a formidable literary debut and the fact that its glowing reception has happened everywhere [is evidence] of the kind of literary talent and achievement this suite of stories represents.

Nam Le is a realist who is not a primitive slap-it-all-down naturalist. Whatever 'life' these stories may or may not be drawn from — and some of them suggest that they have a pretty palpable background — it has been transfigured by the hand of a literary artist who takes nothing for granted. He is not a populist tinkerer who imagines himself to be engaged in the business of literature, nor is he somehow sedulously banging away at his craft in the hope that he might hit on a subject matter. He is first of all a writer of great virtuosity, not only in terms of the competence of his technique, but in the confidence with which he will bite off the most graphic and grisly subject matter in the world, while not shying away from the experience of, let's say, adolescent Australian boys, a young writer's interest in his craft or the complexities of the Vietnamese refugee experience. (And yet, with this latter, it would be ludicrous to see him as any kind of ethnic or multicultural writer.)

This is a writer who can write dialogue Helen Garner would not be ashamed of and who can handle a large or crowded canvas, like Tim Winton on a good day, but the stories range in setting from Iran to South America to wartime Japan. Two of the main characters are Australian, but there is also a willingness, at once expert and freewheeling, to inhabit whatever persona or nationality might come to hand. ... These short fictions (some of them the length of a Chekhov novella) are both extraordinarily variegated and impressively embodied. We believe in Nam Le's New York seen through the eyes of an old painter and in his Tehran from the perspective of an American girl haunted by her older lover and her Iranian girlfriend. He is an effortless geographer of the imagination. ... The overall effect is bracing and fresh, while adhering, with an impressive individual voice, to the classic contours of realism.

["Meeting Elise"] is full of the weight of every kind of failure and desperate hope, but the writing has a wholly credible human drama, and you are left wondering at a talent that can so easefully insinuate its way into something like Philip Roth territory. "Halflead Bay" ... is a story about physical courage — phantasmally analogous to the onset of sexual maturity and mixed up with it in the protagonist's mind. It is, in one way, the kind of story you expect to encounter in a first volume by a young Australian fiction-writer, except that it seems less like the conventional stories it has a family resemblance to than it does to the choking hopes and doubts of adolescence that it rehearses and brings to life. ... It is one index of Nam Le's surefootedness that he can write stories of novella length which have a depth and textured richness that is the opposite of diffuse.

"Tehran Calling" is an indication of how powerfully Nam Le can take a political subject and invest it with intense drama without sacrificing either the formal elegance of his writing or its sympathetic focus. It is one more example of Nam Le leaving a calling card that indicates the kind of morally charged thrillers he might produce in the future. It shows him in something like Graham Greene or Robert Stone territory, and it's hard not to admire the way in which he sustains the curve of his story and the shifting focus of the main character's journey into a world that's strange, invigorating and ghastly. ... "The Boat" aims for an affect of austere magnificence and it is certainly stark and poetic in a way which narrows the mind. It concedes nothing to any hopeful political vision of the refugee or her salvation. This is a dreadful world in which children sing without a flaw the song of lamentation and have every cause to lament. Everything Nam Le knows about the power of restraint and the building up of atmosphere has gone into the story, which is as doom-laden as a play by Sophocles, and creates at one stroke images of desolation and beauty, as if from some lost anthology of the Vietnamese exile. ... A writer who can begin to articulate a vision as bleak in tonality and with such flickers of grandeur on a lowering horizon deserves the world's attention.

Everything Nam Le touches is vivid, everything is game, everything is lithe and readable and full of sap. The Boat [raises] the bar for Australian writing. Nam Le has a nerve and a power, a refusal to take any setting, local or American or exotic, for granted, that leaves quite a few of our prize-winning authors for dead.

He will annoy people because of his facility. He will annoy people because that facility makes him seem overly dab to the point of being facile. But he will make you sit up because every atom in him is writerly and energised and intent on keeping the art of fiction alive."


Australian Book Review, Louise Swinn



Australian Book Review, Louise Swinn, July 2008:

"First books can sometimes read like stylistic impersonations of other authors, but in The Boat, Nam Le has already carved out his own style. He is technically inventive throughout, creating and inhabiting very different worlds. It is immediately evident that Nam Le is in total command of these worlds; he knows them inside and out. Through different points of view we encounter a teenage boy, a young girl, an older man, a young woman and a young man. The voices are as believable as they are intriguing and various.

In the opening story, 'Nam Le' is being encouraged by his peers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop to write about Vietnam. 'Ethnic literature's hot,' they tell him. When a friend cynically suggests, 'as long as there's an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text,' Le is setting the bar for himself, ensuring that the reader knows he is aware of exactly what kinds of criticism can follow. Le, also the fiction editor of the Harvard Review, is not going to take the easy way out. And he doesn't: at no point does he fail the reader. There are no lazy metaphors or stray images; while he is adept at finding the perfect phrase, he never simply resorts to phrase-making for its own sake. At the same time, the story manages to be a father-son tale, while exploring family ties and the tragedies that can lie within personal histories. It is a suitably strong opener.

"Cartagena", set in Colombia, shows us precisely what is at stake for a fourteen-year-old contract killer. Where the endings of short stories can so often be their downfall — too tidily rounded off, or merely truncated — "Cartagena" exemplifies the perfect ending. If stories are music, the beat carries just as long as it needs to, and fades to a close.

"Meeting Elise" is very different. In New York, a middle-aged painter, mourning his dead lover, is preparing to meet his eighteen-year-old daughter, a cello prodigy about to make her debut at Carnegie Hall. Le's confidence with language continues to be on display: 'I don't realise until I'm a little ways down Fifth. It's the height of fall. I turn around. Central Park is in bloom, spastic with colour — red, orange, green, yellow, purple, brown, gold.'

Then comes "Halflead Bay", which, at almost eighty pages, is a novella in itself. This length suits Le's style. With his mother's health fading through the grips of multiple sclerosis, a teenager is trying to prepare for a big football game, to negotiate his love life and to deal with his kid brother. The closing scene is a fight so tightly wrought, so evenly paced, that one feels each punch. A lesser writer would have shied away but Le confronts the scene head-on, and the result is mesmerising. Reading becomes catharsis. Here is a story not easily forgotten.

Next, in "Hiroshima", without an authorial missing of a beat, a little girl hungrily awaits peace in a camp just before the fall of the atomic bomb. The language, suitably pared back and straightforward, only adds to the eerie knowing that evil looms: 'Mrs Tamura does not sing that night. I lie on my back. Tomiko is on my left and Yukiyo is on my right. Everywhere there is the sound of sniffing.'

"Tehran Calling" is an unwaveringly original suspense story about war and a friendship between two women. It is followed by the final story, "The Boat", about a Vietnamese refugee in a boat carrying twice its capacity, surrounded by other refugees, and sickness, and storms. It is the harrowing highlight in a book full of them.

Nam Le was born in Vietnam, moved to Australia, and has been living in the United States, where longer short stories enjoy a greater vogue than they do here. Even the shortest of these stories far exceeds the length restrictions on most Australian short story competitions. Individually, the stories are vibrant, striking, alive; but collecting them has magnified their individual power. Linear reading of this compilation reinforces the sense that the author has compassion for his subjects, and this, in turn, draws out the compassion of the reader.

It takes courage to expose the empathy that lies at the heart of these stories. Reading The Boat, life itself is wholly experienced in the text. It serves as a powerful reminder that this is how we can live — that fiction, in the end, offers an authentic way to know other people."



The Age review, James Ley



James Ley, 14 June 2008:

"[The stories in] The Boat roam widely, and do so with aplomb. This is a remarkably accomplished collection, not merely on account of its uncommon breadth, but for its consistently high level of craftsmanship. Each of its seven stories is, in its own way, a substantial and well-developed piece of writing. The Boat is ... notable for the poise with which Le handles the most charged subjects. The confirmation of his range and ability is there in the trio of stories that round out the collection: "Hiroshima," which is narrated from the perspective of a Japanese schoolgirl; "Tehran Calling," in which a young American lawyer, struggling with a sense of her own worthlessness, travels to Iran to visit a friend who has become a political activist; and the devastating title story, which tells of a nightmarish voyage by a boatload of refugees. All three inhabit female perspectives and each is backgrounded by a major historical upheaval. All three find Le reaching for richly textured and emotionally complex styles of fiction that reveal a young writer unafraid to test the limits of his considerable and emerging talent.

The title of The Boat's opening story is taken from a remark of William Faulkner's, reiterated by Nam's straight-talking friend, that 'we should write about the old verities. Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.' Le has set out to do just this in these tales, and he has done it well. Even the first story's coolly metafictional dimension is so adroitly handled that it never alienates from its genuine sense of empathy and openness.

For once you can believe the hype: The Boat is without doubt one of the most accomplished fictional debuts of recent years."

(Click logo on left for full review, or here for The Age's profile of Nam Le.)


The Sydney Morning Herald review, Andrew Riemer



Andrew Riemer, 20 June 2008:

"[An] impressive collection ... [The Boat] reveals a writer of admirable skill and maturity.

The main emphasis in both [the opening and closing stories] falls on the moral, political and psychological predicament of people who endured the horrors of the war in Vietnam, the brutality of the Vietcong and the barbarism of their US 'liberators'. These stories are 'ethnic lit' at its best: vivid, psychologically astute, revealing complex ethical discriminations and a fine ability to suggest foreign (indeed exotic) idioms in lucid English prose.

It is in the other stories, however, that Le displays uncommon virtuosity, more than occasional brilliance and extraordinary inventiveness. I do not know whether the stories set in Colombia, Japan and Iran are based on this young writer's observations or if they are the product of a fecund imagination. Either way, they are outstanding.

"Cartagena", a story about Colombia's teenage criminal gangs, is a tour-de-force. It evokes a nightmarish world of drug barons and their hired assassins through the voice of a teenager, hardly more than a child, old beyond his years, facing an impossible choice between loyalty to his masters and the almost sacred claims of friendship.

"Meeting Elise" is a wry, grotesque tale of the humiliations endured by an ageing New York painter at the hands (literally) of his gastroenterologist — he has advanced cancer — a snooty waiter in an upmarket restaurant and, most of all, his estranged daughter and her mean-eyed, mean-spirited fiance. Elise, the daughter, is an up-and-coming cello virtuoso. With finely calculated cruelty, she turns her back on her father at the moment of her artistic triumph. ... The ambiguous relationship between parents and children colours most of these stories.

"Tehran Calling" takes Sarah, a US lawyer, to Iran on a six-day visa to visit her friend Parvin, formerly a US-based activist for Iranian women's rights, now trying to keep the flame of liberalism alive in a repressive, imam-dominated society. From the opening paragraph, where Sarah watches 'dark-eyed women dabbing off their make-up, donning headscarves' as their plane lands in Tehran, to its surprising and unsettling climax, this extended story is a compelling vision of a troubled society scarred by paradoxes of all kinds — political and religious as well as sexual.

"Hiroshima", the best of these stories, is the shortest. Mayako, 'Little Turnip', has been evacuated from Hiroshima to a school in the hills above the city. There, her thoughts flow from the children's hardships and privations to memories of her family — her father, wounded in Manchuria, now a Shinto priest; her brother, who sacrificed his life for Emperor and fatherland; Big Sister, all patriotic zeal; and her mother, who tells Little Turnip that she must put 'her hands together' for those people who, in wartime, 'do not wish to be reminded of the gods'. There is little narrative progression in this superb piece. It is illuminated by Mayako's drifting thoughts as she waits with the other children for fiery raids by fleets of US bombers that have so far spared Hiroshima, and then hears the drone of a single plane flying over the city, to drop leaflets or perhaps something else, unknown, unimaginable."

(Click logo on left for full review, or here for The Sydney Morning Herald's profile of Nam Le.)



The Sydney Sun-Herald review, Eleanor Limprecht



The Sydney Sun-Herald, Eleanor Limprecht, 6 July 2008:

"If there is a familiar refrain in fiction writing workshops, it is to 'write what you know'. Reading only the first and last stories from Vietnamese-born Australian author Nam Le's first book of short stories, The Boat, one would come away thinking that he has listened well, but have little idea of his imaginative breadth. While the first and the last stories in this collection address situations similar to the ones Le experienced as the child of a first-generation Vietnamese family in Australia (his parents came over on a boat escaping the communist regime in 1979, when Le was a few months old), the rest of the stories jump borders, narratives and time. From the shady world of hit-men in Colombia to Hiroshima moments before the bomb drops, Le's subject matter is global. But he manages to involve us so deeply with the characters in each of his stories that we are left immersed in the strange, realistic worlds he creates and the vulnerable, lonely people who populate them. ... Truly, it is a welcome change from the pigeonholed ethnic author writing only about the world from which he has come.

In an interview with The New York Times, Le said the very attempt of stretching beyond one's own limited experience 'to me is a heroic thing and an incredibly hopeful thing'. Intricate descriptions and vivid, unusual language help Le create these worlds — many involving locations the 29-year-old has readily admitted he's never visited.

Le creates a Tehran with 'light-spilled streets like narrow banks, the metal stream rolling ceaselessly between them. Lights from cars, candles, distant street lamps deranging themselves into an emptiness so bright it evaporated everything'. Or a New York in "Meeting Elise", where 'the streets are vacant, dark as a lung. When the wind comes up it sounds like the trees talk to each other over the noise of a crowd'. The title story, "The Boat", finishes the collection with a tale of a young woman, Mai, who attempts the horrific voyage on an overcrowded boat from Vietnam to Australia, but instead of losing herself in the terror of the trip she fixates on a six-year-old boy who can sing beautifully and whose eyes haunt her. It is these strange relationships we form, in spite of ourselves and often to our own detriment, which Le keeps returning to. Through Mai's obsession, her past becomes as alive as the teeming, fetid boat — her father returned from a communist re-education camp with the same hard, empty eyes of the boy — 'a face dead of surprise'.

There are plenty of surprises in The Boat, and it is a credit to Le that the reader feels compelled rather than manipulated by them. His stories have already appeared in Overland, Zoetrope, The Best Australian Stories 2007, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 and The Pushcart Prize 2008. Hopefully this is just the beginning of an illustrious career."


Australian Literary Review, Barry Oakley



Barry Oakley, 2 July 2008:

"Nam Le is ... a disturber of the peace, a writer whose energies put so much strain on the short story form that it can't contain them. Novella doesn't sound right, either; that, too, suggests a modesty of ambition Le simply doesn't have. Spring-loaded compressed novels, perhaps.

Consider the subjects of his stories: a child assassin in Colombia ("Cartagena"), an ageing New York artist desperate for a reconciliation with his daughter ("Meeting Elise"), a boy's coming of age in a rough Victorian fishing town ("Halflead Bay), before the first atomic bomb falls in Japan ("Hiroshima"), the suffocations of theocracy in Iran ("Tehran Calling"). This astonishing range is topped and tailed by accounts of the uneasy reunion of a young Vietnamese writer in America with his ex-soldier father, and by the title story — the escape of a group of exhausted refugees from the Vietcong in a wallowing boat.

Since Le was born in Vietnam, educated in Melbourne and now lives in the U.S., at least three of these stories have autobiographical elements, but this is irrelevant. His recreations of a woman's life under the Tehran fanatics, the patriotic innocence of a young Japanese girl before the conflagration and the chilling knowingness of an equally young Colombian boy who has just become a gun for hire for the drug lords, all carry total conviction.

Surely, one might be permitted to think, after all this high seriousness and intensity, Nam Le can't do funny. But this criminally talented 29-year-old can do that as well. His portrait of the disintegrating Henry Luff and his ordeals with his gastroenterologist ('He's wheeling something towards me — a laptop — attached to about ten feet of evil-looking black rubber hosing') reads like Saul Bellow with a dash of Rabelais. Then, smoothly as a racing driver, Le changes gear: down from high comedy to pitifulness as, despite his drunken efforts, Luff doesn't manage to meet his daughter at all."


Nicholas Jose, 5 August 2009:

"These complex self-reflexivities of the migrant father-aspirational son drama are brilliantly shaped here into a study of how one culture layers into another, pushed down and then reasserting itself in an endless cycles, with language playing a crucial role as slippery agent of transmission and translation. The son's prodigious skill in English is undercut by the necessity of speaking to his father in Vietnamese, where they become timeless Ba and Child: 'It felt strange, after all this time, to be speaking Vietnamese again.' Yet language is what the son does and is, even to giving an Australian nuance to this classically American story of generational displacement and accommodation: 'I was a lawyer and I was no lawyer ... holding a flat white in a white cup,' Nam says. (Note the localised coffee descriptor.) 'That's all I've ever done, traffic in words.'

A triumphant virtuosity makes this story, "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," both ethnic lit and art. The famous silently snow-falling ending of James Joyce's story "The Dead" is summoned by the opening paragraphs — 'The sound of rain filled the room —rain fell on the streets, on the roofs, on the tin shed across the parking lot' — and the ghosts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever and Carver are summoned in this doubling text. Yet within lies a deeper, tougher truth about what drives people on to survive as refugees or make it as writers: the craving for life that impels all change, which the father utters and the son translates, 'How far does an empty stomach drag you?'

Le's story turns the dilemmas of Asian Australian writerly positioning into crystalline art with a strong emotional undercurrent."



The West Australian review



The West Australian, 19 July 2008:

"Nam Le is a fiercely talented new writer who takes a scalpel to human experience in this collection of stories. There is a genuine sense that the writer is exploring himself, particularly in stories relating to Vietnam and family. But the stories, while introspective, are far from navel gazing. Instead, they generalise from the personal to the many, from what is within one person to what is in all people, the shared experience of humanity, sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic and sometimes savage. Stories such as "Meeting Elise" display a gentler aspect of humanity while "Halflead Bay" and "Tehran Calling" are beautifully realised and richly developed."




The Australian Financial Review, Geoffrey Lehmann



The Australian Financial Review, Geoffrey Lehmann, 3 October 2008:

"Nam Le is a young Vietnamese Australian who practiced as a corporate lawyer and is now fiction editor at the Harvard Review.  His first book, The Boat, displays a blistering talent.  He is already a virtuoso.  This is a book of short stories and each reads like an intense, short novel as the narrative twists and turns, dragging the reader along breathlessly behind the author, who remains strangely elusive and difficult to pin down.

The seven stories cover an extraordinary geographic range, but adapt effortlessly to their setting.  Two stories deal with Le’s Vietnamese heritage.  The narrator of “Cartagena” is a Colombian hit man, 14 years old turning 15.  This is a dark, beautiful story.  The narrator of “Meeting Elise” is a wealthy, older New York artist, a self-described 'dirty old man' who is waiting to meet his estranged teenage daughter, now a famous cellist, for the first time since she was a baby.

In “Halflead Bay,” a teenager in an Australian coastal town, a very ordinary sort of kid, whose mother is dying of multiple sclerosis, has a crush on another pupil.

She bent down to the nozzle [of the drinking fountain] and pursed her mouth in a glossy O.  Her top button was undone — sprung open as though by the heat — and he could see the inside line of her breasts.  The stripe of sweat gleaming between them.

The problem with Alison, who leads Jamie on, is that she has a big and quite brutal boyfriend, Dory — or is Dory her boyfriend?  Tension is maintained over the 79 pages of the story, which is the longest in the book, by the conflict between Jamie and Dory, and Alison’s opaque motivation.  The climax is deftly handled and avoids faux violence.

Other stories deal with Hiroshima just before the bomb was dropped — a small girl tells the story, and an American, Sarah, visiting Tehran to spend time with an Iranian woman friend whom she has known only in an American context.

Le is a master of many masks and these are marvellous stories."



The Brisbane Courier-Mail review, Heidi Maier



The Brisbane Courier-Mail, Heidi Maier, 14 June 2008:

"In this, his ambitious and compelling debut collection of short stories, Australian expatriate writer Nam Le blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction with an ease that might be disturbing were it not so beautifully executed.

In the book's austere and haunting opening story, "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", Le gives us a character named Nam who is in his last year at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. ... But Le is no aspiring writer. His stories are, for the most part, the real thing. The sad and tender "Halflead Bay" is told from the perspective of a young boy whose mother is dying as he is falling in love for the first time. "Tehran Calling" explores an American woman's travels in the Middle East and "Meeting Elise" reunites a dying father with his estranged daughter. She, like the Nam of the first story, tries to forgive him for his mistakes, but finds the leap a difficult one to make and it is this fractured relationship between parent and child that the author explores with impressive dexterity and resonance.

The Boat is a volume that deserves to be read and appreciated for its many moments of beauty."

(Click logo on left for full review.)


The Grafton Daily Examiner review, Robin Osborne



The Grafton Daily Examiner, Robin Osborne, 14 June 2008:

"Seldom has a writer been preceded by such acclaim as Nam Le, the son of Vietnamese 'boat people', with rights to this book being sold around the world and such notables as Helen Garner speaking of a 'fearless new voice' producing 'stories of leaping power and the most breathtaking grace and intimacy.'

So, for the test: how well does he write? The answer is very well indeed, in a style that is emotionally deep — gut-wrenching at times — without being complex in the literary sense. The collection of seven short stories spans 315 pages and is topped and tailed by two yarns with Vietnamese themes. The first [is] ... a beautifully crafted tale, about the generation and cultural gaps between father and son, the former who was forced to fight in the losing South Vietnamese army and spend time in re-education camps before fleeing communist Vietnam, the latter, well educated, now successful in the western world. "The Boat", which ends the collection, is the story most likely to cement Nam Le's reputation. It is a harrowing, superbly crafted account of conditions in just one of the many flimsy boats that carried refugees out of Vietnam after the communist victory. While thousands suffered and many died, it is the circumstances of one family — by implication, his family — that occupies the limelight. The other settings are totally different ... and the writing is just as involving.

Indeed, a superb debut performance."



The Monthly review, Martin Shaw



Martin Shaw, June 2008:

"A much-anticipated collection of dark and elegant short stories ... [An] outstanding debut collection.

[In the opening story,] what at first seems wonderful source material becomes a revelation — of the inviolability of family; of the inadequacy of language for a memory stained by violence, death and separation; and of the writer's obligation nevertheless to try and register that sorrow, to show the resilience of the human spirit in the face of vertiginous reality.

If there is such a thing as a literary stress position, then in the stories that follow, Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, makes his characters adopt it: there is a child assassin in the Colombian drug wars, a terminally ill painter in New York whose only child is lost to him, and a Hiroshima family in the days before 6 August 1945 — all for whom 'trying to think and trying to forget amounted to the same thing.' Le's limpid prose is perfectly paced; the versatility of voice and point-of-view is masterful. Exhilarating narrative sleights-of-hand regularly propel these fictions in unexpected directions.

Kafka's dictum — alluded to in the closing image of the first story — was that literature should be the axe which breaks open the frozen sea within us. The Boat is an icebreaker, all right: there is nowhere, it seems, that it is not prepared to go."



Overland review, Louisa Syme



Louisa Syme, Spring 2008:

"Why are [Nam Le's] short stories deemed worthy of backing by a big, mainstream publishing house? No doubt the international hype vibrating around Nam Le won't harm sales figures. But the chief reason is much more generous and exciting than that. It is surely the recognition of the captivating imaginative power at work in these stories. Le creates a diversity of authentic voices in whom you believe, love, and are heartbroken by.

Considered from a distance, the stories as a whole play out like an exercise in virtuosity, in proving that Le can make a fourteen-year-old 'hitman' living in the Colombian slums, or an elderly New York artist, come alive as adeptly as he can a young Vietnamese-Australian writer. However, close up these stories are so beautifully crafted as to fully absorb the reader.

If "Love and Honour ..." acts as an introduction to the concerns of this collection, then Le creates a neat bookend with "The Boat", the final story. It's as if "The Boat" has been written to test the accusation levelled in the first story by the friend of the narrator, that so-called 'ethnic' literature is 'a licence to bore ... the characters are always flat, generic'. The Vietnamese refugees in this story, embarked on a terrifying escape from their homeland, are anything but flat. In fact they feel sometimes uncomfortably, unbearably real: 'Then she felt Quyen's face, cool with shock, next to her own, rough and wet and cool against her knuckles, speaking into her ear.' Like all of the stories in this collection, "The Boat" deals with the recurring theme of children abandoned by their parents (through circumstance, necessity, death, sometimes for their own good) and the way in which parents' histories shape the lives of their children as much as the children's own experiences. Variations on this theme are hardly new in fiction, but Le's writing around the parent-child binary is strong and fresh and exquisitely nuanced."



Antipodes review, Nathanael O'Reilly



Nathanael O'Reilly, June 2009:

"A stunning debut from a remarkable new talent ... The Boat may be the greatest first book by an Australian author in decades, and Le is well on the way to attaining a global reputation as one of the finest writers in the English language."



Independent Weekly review, Stephen Davenport



Stephen Davenport, 27 March 2009:

"On this evidence there's no doubt that Le is a storyteller of dizzying power. He adopts a distinctive voice for every story and each tale pounds along at such a pace that it threatens to leap out of the page. "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" is narrated by a young writer named Nam, at a prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. "Halflead Bay" is a coming-of-age drama set in a Victorian coastal town and both they and the other five pieces are flawless. What keeps this collection vivid, compelling and impossible to resist is the author's eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of human emotions. Inspiring, heart-wrenching and forcefully stunning, The Boat is an energetic and thought-provoking read."



Vogue review, Clare Press



Clare Press, July 2008:

"A few years back, Vogue ran a piece on new young literary voices. It featured Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss but the list was pretty light on local talent. If we did the same today we'd be spoilt for choice. Our favourites this month? Nam Le, the lawyer turned cult-lit star whose intoxicating debut, The Boat, has the critics spewing forth superlatives, and with good reason: it's epic in its sweep and lofty in its goals and Le pulls it all off with serious style."



The Big Issue review, Louise Swinn



Louise Swinn, 3 June 2008:

"Perhaps it's Le's rebelliousness that is setting him apart: at a time when publishers are reluctant to publish collections of stories he has found success with The Boat, a book of seven stories (although one is novella length). Of the seven — which are set in places as diverse as Iran and Colombia — five have been published already, in collections including The Best Australian Stories and the Harvard Review. The demand for Le's stories is growing, and it is easy to see why: his writing is evocative and full of portent.

Le says that writing is about 'trying not to fall back on one way of seeing the world, a default', and his exploration of the minds of a wide range of characters can only come from a cosmic capacity for empathy. ... The Boat does not read like the work of a first-time author ... [it] has already been long-listed for the international (and lucrative) Frank O'Connor Short Story Prize [and] received glowing reviews."



The Herald Sun review, Nicole Lindsay

Daily Telegraph review, Nicole Lindsay



Nicole Lindsay, 19 July 2008:

"This first collection by Nam Le opens with two brilliant stories ... "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" and "Cartagena" are among the best I've read from any contemporary writer for a long time."



Qantas (The Australian Way) Magazine review, Paul Robinson



Qantas (The Australian Way) Magazine, Paul Robinson, June 2008:

"A potent collection of stories from this Vietnamese-born, Melbourne-raised writer, presently fiction editor of the Harvard Review. A Vietnamese refugee adrift at sea, a boy in WWII Hiroshima, an out-of-her-depth tourist in Tehran, a teenage sicario (hit man) in the Cartagena slums, these are Nam Le's heroes. The narratives are riveting, the voice mature and the subject matter matters. Nam Le delivers in spades."



mX review (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne)



mX (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne), 25 June 2008:

"Transport yourself to every corner of the globe in this well-paced anthology of short stories. Le effortlessly switches between the Vietnam War, a child assassin in Colombia and a Victorian fishing village. The startling economy of the author's words, intimacy of the characters and narrative rhythm give each story grace. Now Harvard Review fiction editor, Le did the literary world a favour by throwing in his old job as a lawyer."



mX review (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne)



Murray Garrard, May/June 2009:

"With such a large and influential Vietnamese population in Australia it was only a matter of time before the community produced their first great writer. Nam Le’s The Boat is the much anticipated debut collection of short stories from one of Australia’s brightest literary hopes ... the title story is a worthy contender for the best Asian short story ever."



Australian Prime Minister's Literary Awards judges' citation



Judges' citation, 2 November 2009:

"Nam Le's collection of fiction, The Boat, which comprises short and long stories, artfully arrayed, is one of the most impressive debuts of recent years. The range of subjects and settings astonishes, as does the assurance and control with which the author immerses us in the stories that he makes from them. While the span of the fiction is cosmopolitan, each story is intensely attuned to the local circumstances that deform and enable the lives of these varied characters, animated as they are by love and despair. As shown especially in the final and title story, Nam Le combines almost reckless artistic boldness with highly disciplined craft."



More —




Chris Flynn's review at Meanjin blog Spike (17 November 2009)

Kara Martin's review at Sydney Anglicans (27 July 2009)

Ben Falkenmire's review at Final Draft (2SER) (28 July 2008)

Patrick Cullen's review at Readings (4 June 2008)

Culturati's mention in Harper's Bazaar (13 May 2008) (scroll down)