four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Nam Le
user_rating: 
0

A-The BoatBorn in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and a former attorney and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Nam Le has had a range of experiences—and he’s not yet 30. His debut collection of short stories draws on his rich imagination and exquisite skill.

The Story: Themes of love, life, loyalty, pride, sacrifice, and death link these seven short stories, which take place on the streets of Tehran, in the slums of Colombia, and in Manhattan, Australia, Iowa, and the South China Sea. In the opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," a young Vietnamese-Australian writer named Nam writes about his father’s survival of the Mai Lai massacre. In "Cartagena," a 14-year-old assassin needs protection—but it comes at a horrific price. "Hiroshima" imagines a young girl’s final hours before the bomb drops, and "Halflead Bay" features an Australian high school student facing a rival and his mother’s illness. In the title story, a young woman on a Vietnamese refugee boat makes a terrible, heartbreaking decision.
Knopf. 288 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 030726808X

Raleigh News & Observer 5 of 5 Stars
"For avid readers who have hungered for stories that can transport them physically, intellectually and emotionally, stories so well-structured and narrated they appear to reinvent the form itself, the literary American Idol is Nam Le. … There is so much to say about Nam Le’s genius it would take a book and even that may not be enough." Denise Gess

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Rather than putting off the reader, each moment of technical brio deepens the dramatization of the all-but-unspeakable power of love between parent and child. … Though none of the six remaining stories are autobiographical in any but the most incidental ways, each contemplates love with a sometimes unnerving ferocity." John Repp

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"That range of characters is unusual, but what is truly remarkable about these stories is that the language and tone of each one is perfectly suited to the characters and setting, even incorporating snatches of Colombian gangster slang, Vietnamese proverbs and wartime Japanese patriotic slogans. The stories are so different from one another it is hard to believe all seven are the work of a single author." Michael McGaha

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Le never tries to throw his voice, or mimic how a person like his narrator would speak. Instead, he creates a literary equivalent that is just articulate enough, unusual enough to hold our attention and keep us reading. … It’s a wonder to watch." John Freeman

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Whether it’s the prospect of dying at sea or being shot by a drug kingpin or losing family members in a war, Nam Le’s people are individuals trapped in the crosshairs of fate. … Mr. Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among longtime authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

With this debut collection, Le has become the new literary darling. Every critic marveled at this powerful new voice in fiction, a young writer whose characters are so emotionally and psychologically rich that they simply transported reviewers to new worlds and eras. Le’s remarkable range of characters, subjects, settings, and perspectives "beggars belief," says the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Indeed, Le "puts his searching, observant voice wherever he likes"—with astounding success (Minneapolis Star Tribune). A few critics commented on a gimmicky premise, the gratuitous postmodern twists, and a few strained voices, but these flaws barely dampened critics’ enthusiasm. Simply put, The Boat is that rare, captivating debut deserving of a wide audience.