The Boat title bar - Reviews

Nam Le - The Boat, Reviews

(Click on flags below, or here for other countries' reviews)

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


The Times review, Kate Saunders




Kate Saunders, 2 August 2008:

"The short story is constantly on the endangered list, but this stunning collection by a young Vietnamese/Australian writer shows that it is alive and in the best of health. Each story demands to be taken slowly and read more than once. My favourite was "Meeting Elise", in which an elderly painter mourns his lost lover and prepares to meet the daughter he has not seen since she was a baby ... Le pulls together the threads of his life with beautiful economy."


Neel Mukherjee, 14 February 2009:

"The entire world has declared Nam Le the Next Big Thing. His debut short story collection, The Boat, has garnered praise from all corners ... These are dazzling exercises with each world intensely inhabited. How does Le know that the onomatopoeic call of the rare Japanese cicada, 'tsukutsukuboshi', sounds like a birdcall: 'chokko chokko uisi'? Details such as these move each story from the diligently researched to something more extraordinary."

(Click here for The Times's interview with Nam Le.)



The Guardian review, Catherine Taylor





Catherine Taylor, 30 August 2008:

"It's tempting to be sceptical about the global reach of Nam Le's collection, which has attracted considerable international praise. Teenage hitmen haunt the barrios of Colombia, a disillusioned American woman becomes indirectly involved in the politics of Iran, a cancer-ridden New York painter futilely attempts to reconnect with an estranged daughter. Yet each voice is achingly present and authentic. Le, from Vietnam, grew up in Australia, and the finest tales are intense portraits of these differing worlds. In "Halflead Bay", a school soccer star's showdown with his hulk-like rival for the attentions of a manipulative girl is as good as anything Tim Winton has produced about Australian society. History's messy legacy lies at the heart of the book — in the ravaging title story, a group of Vietnamese refugees journeys desperately towards a hostile future."


James Smart, 14 February 2009:

"A debut collection of impressive ambition. Le's stories are suffused with danger and stuffed with intriguing supporting characters. They end suddenly, leaving your heart in the lurch and your head wondering whether it's in Iran or Australia or the barrios of Colombia ... This enormously promising collection impresses more with its verve than its roots; these stories are dramatic but grounded, nimble yet meaningful."



Scotland on Sunday review, Peggy Hughes





Peggy Hughes, 5 October 2008:

"Nam Le takes us around the world in 271 wince-making, heart-breaking pages of a debut collection disarming for its grace and notable for its incisive, memorable prose. Containing deft slices of portraiture which feel like they've been taken from larger canvases, his stories touch upon fragmented lives of hardship, with assurance, tenderness and an honest eye to the capriciousness of reality.

Bookended by stories about his native Vietnam, Le's narrative range is one of a number of things to be seduced by. Those who sail in The Boat speak formal Vietnamese and colloquial Australian, while "Cartagena" is marbled with Colombian Spanish, as bandied between the street gang. We are tossed from one mindscape to another — a troubled adolescent in the outback; New York's Central Park and an ageing artist adrift between thoughts of meeting his daughter and lascivious reveries of the love of his life; a refugee amid the wretched stink of a vomit-strewn vessel attempting escape on the South China Seas.

Le transports these experiences into our sphere of cognisance with the verbal balance and taut power of a high-wire artist. His words are by turn weights and weapons; torches that uncover stifled truths with linguistic dexterity: 'an alphabet refracted in water' describes an unknown language; a lover 'unmakes' a smile, an assassin's mind is 'dark as an empty barrel'. His thrilling command of words is a celebration of the possibilities they contain. The pace too is admirable. Building to a crescendo, atmosphere comes from a steady layering of detail, sharp bursts of action, clatter and smells, as in "Tehran Calling". Firecrackers, burning meat, stall vendors and candles juxtapose with the rhetorical introspection of 'Sarah', an admirable marriage between the external and the internal that he frequently deploys.

The emotional anchor of these stories is the search for something, intimated in Auden's words, 'the flares of desperation rise', and the wind in their sails the giddy 'urge' to tell out a clutch of lives. One seeks his father's approval, another respect, yet others self-discovery and power. Ragged flotsam in their different corners of the world, regardless of age, class or wealth, the stories and their people coalesce into a transcendent whole, with sense that Le is writing about everyone and no one at once, and that we will read them most avidly for the comfort of knowing we are not alone."


The Observer review, Francesca Segal



Hirsh Sawhney, 10 October 2008:

"'Ethnic literature's hot. And important too', remarks a character in The Boat. Nam Le, an Australian who was born in Vietnam and studied writing in the US, moves beyond the confines of that kind of cultural stereotyping. His first short story collection takes readers to a variety of places, some of which he has never visited, including Tehran, Japan in the Second World War and Manhattan's Carnegie Hall.

Ron, the protagonist of a story called "Cartagena", lives in Medellín, Colombia, a city ravaged by drug lords and guerrillas. An adolescent assassin armed with Glocks and grenades, he is in hiding because he has failed to carry out his most recent job — the murder of Hernando, a former partner in crime who has gone to work with 'gringo-led programs' that 'are known to combat violence and drugs and poverty'. It is a gripping, intricately woven piece of crime fiction.

Psychological insight is a hallmark of Le's work, but he also has a facility for a kind of dark humour. In "Meeting Elise", the narrator Henry Luff, a neurotic, ageing New York artist, is about to meet up with his estranged daughter, but first he must see his gastroenterologist. His day doesn't go quite as planned: he is told he has cancer, and his daughter refuses to see him. Luff's life, like the lives of many here, is blighted by disease and death and dislocated love. But it is not morose plot twists that give this book cohesion. The Boat is most compelling when a mother's enduring battle with MS, or the human effects of racial violence, are part of the background, while teenage romance and betrayal deliver the drama.

Le uses carefully imagined details to conjure up distant worlds and individuals, most poignantly in the collection's title story. Mai, a young Vietnamese teenager, has been sent away from her wartorn home to seek a new life abroad. For days she hides in rat-infested boats, where she wakes 'to the sound of wood tapping hollowly against wood'. She makes it to the open ocean on a broken-down vessel, but a storm pushes the boat off course, and as supplies diminish, the dead passengers are eaten by sharks. The voyage ends on a note of hope conveyed with the severity that marks this collection. Stories like this demonstrate Le's ability to use sensory experiences to evoke the most distant situations and show that he has a considerable talent."



The Observer review, Francesca Segal



Francesca Segal, 24 August 2008:

"Le travels the globe in his tales, summoning vastly different worlds with a consistently impressive power. This is an assured and tremendously readable collection from a young writer with rare scope and strength."


James Purdon, 8 February 2009:

"Too often, the stamp of a creative writing workshop is a sign of formulaic fiction; of books bred in comfortable seminars. In this collection's first and strongest story, Nam Le twists that perception into a frame for the rest of his writing as the narrator, a version of Le, watches his visiting Vietnamese father burn his short story about the My Lai massacre. 'Ethnic literature's hot,' an agent tells the writer. 'Just write a story about Vietnam,' is a friend's advice for overcoming writer's block. There is a story about Vietnam here, and others about Colombian child assassins, the children of Hiroshima and an ageing New York artist, each one approaching the edge of catastrophe in prose that mixes the sensational with the seemingly fortuitous and mundane."



Telegraph review, Alistair Sooke



Alistair Sooke, 2 August 2008:

"Le is a promising and fiercely talented writer."


Ian Critchley, 11 February 2009:

"Nam Le’s first collection of short stories centres on those living on the brink of death. "Cartagena" features Colombian teenage hit men for whom “death is just a transaction”, while the protagonist of "Meeting Elise" is a New York painter, newly diagnosed with cancer, who is about to meet the daughter he has not seen for 17 years. Le’s characters come to discover for the first time the thing that is most important to them, and more often than not this is their family – the stories are full of broken and mended ties with fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. A superb collection, brimming with humour and compassion."



Sunday Herald review



Jennie Renton, 23 August 2008:

"A highly accomplished collection, abounding with phrases that gleam. It glitters with imagery to do with light and water. But in his subject matter, Nam Le is concerned to convey the vulnerability, wisdom and potential viciousness of youth."



The Independent review, Brandon Robshaw, 15 Feb 2009



Brandon Robshaw, 15 February 2009:

"Nam Le writes through the characters, he lets them drive the plot and not vice versa, he shows and doesn't tell, he uses concrete images, he handles time-shifts with aplomb, and there are no spurious happy endings ... Le takes in an impressive range of character and setting: the title story is a harrowing account of what it's like to be 10 days adrift in a boat designed for 15 passengers with 200 refugees on board. The descriptions are painfully vivid, and the account of a child's death is one of the most moving things I have read in a long while ... Overall, the word-choice is spot-on, and the prose is densely textured."


Emma Hagestadt, 27 February 2009:

"Entertaining ... A tongue-in-cheek collection of short stories that questions what is authentic and what is assumed, Le's book takes a playful swipe at the good intentions of liberal America."



Financial Times review, Aravind Adiga



Aravind Adiga, 18 August 2008:

"A piece of advice that every aspiring novelist is sure to get, sooner or later, is to 'write what you know'. By restricting yourself to direct experience and autobiography, the theory goes, you give your narrative authenticity. Now comes a first book by a young Vietnamese-Australian author that challenges this maxim: The Boat, a collection of short stories by Nam Le, insists that literature must also be created out of worlds the writer does not know.

The opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", is set in the Iowa Writer’s Program and features a Vietnamese-Australian man, who — much like Nam — quit his job as a lawyer in Australia and came to Iowa to write. He wants to write about people living in faraway places but is told that such literature does not sell. A visiting literary agent tells him, 'You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?' The answer: 'Your background and life experience.' The young writer seems to take this advice; when his father comes to spend time with him in Iowa, he decides to write a story about his father’s life in Vietnam.

This moving story of a troubled father-son relationship proves to be a feint. Story number two, "Cartagena", does exactly what the literary agent has said not to do. It jumps from Iowa to South America, leaving protected writing school for harsh ghetto. We hear the story of a 14-year-old contract killer: hitherto cold-blooded, he has recently refused to carry out an order to kill a friend and has been summoned by his mob boss. In "Meeting Elise", we move back to the US to read the story of an ageing artist desperate to see his estranged daughter before it is too late. Four more stories follow, set in Japan, Australia, Iran and on the seas around Vietnam.

In each, a character has been pushed to the extreme limit of his capacity to understand his world or respond to it. In "Hiroshima", a young Japanese girl in the second world war dimly senses the cracks in the wartime propaganda she is being fed — on the very day the atom bomb is to be dropped on her city. In "Tehran Calling", an American woman disorientated by a painful love affair flees to Iran, in search of an old college friend who might be able to offer new stability. These are people on the edge, and Nam’s prose captures their desperation. ... Memoirists should stick to what they know; the point of literature is to expand the limits of the world. The Boat is a laudable effort to leave what is known for the wide world beyond."



Metro review, Zena Alkayat



Zena Alkayat, 5 August 2008:

"Australian/Vietnamese author Nam Le offers an assured debut in his collection The Boat. These stories ... subtly develop a darker, more meaty quality as he mines topics as disparate as the treatment of immigrants and family loyalties."



Dylan Thomas Prize judges' citation



Judges' citation, 10 November 2008:

"In Nam Le, I am confident we have found a winner worthy of Dylan Thomas. His outstanding work demonstrated a rare brilliance that is breathtaking both in the scope of its subject matter and the quality of its writing.

Nam tackles his own background and circumstances as well as that of others with a clear eye, focussed intelligence and wonderful use of words. He is, in this panel’s opinion, a phenomenal literary talent, and I look forward to following his career as it progresses."



More —




Jo Caird's review at Culture Wars (28 November 2008)

Teddy Jamieson's mention at The Herald's Short Cuts blog (22 August 2008)