This is a brilliant story collection, full of tales from the Philippines and their diaspora. The author is one of those literary writers who does a fantastic job at creating characters, with distinct personalities and psychological complexity, in just a few pages. The stories tend to focus on the characters’ personal journeys, and are sometimes quietly brutal, but stand out for the vividness of the characters and of the author’s imagery. I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and took my time reading it, but most of the stories still stand out clearly in my mind. The author’s writing is also excellent, and has a certain weight to it that will keep you from breezing right through: every word has meaning and is there because it needs to be. It’s by no means dense, but it’s solid literature, the kind of writing that loses nothing when you re-read it.
Because I often look for others’ reactions to specific short stories as I finish them, here are my mini-reviews, in order of appearance:
“The Kontrabida”: A young man working in New York returns to the Philippines to visit his abusive father, who is seriously ill, and his apparently saintly mother. To my mind this is one of the best in the collection, deliberate and atmospheric, with a whammy at the end.
“The Miracle Worker”: A young special ed teacher, living in Bahrain with her husband, is approached by a wealthy Arab woman who has unrealistic dreams for her severely disabled child. This is also one of the best, complex and surprisingly dark, leaving a certain awful secret to be fleshed out by the reader, and with a final image that stuck with me long after finishing.
“Legends of the White Lady”: An American model with some personal issues visits the Philippines for a shoot. My least favorite of the collection, this story is lightweight compared to the rest, but it still feels grounded in authentic experience.
“Shadow Families”: A community of newly-well-off Philippine wives in Bahrain includes less-fortunate immigrants from their country in social events, but these include a challenging young woman who’s more interested in their husbands than their friendship. This story is told in the first-person plural – there’s a “we” but no “I” – and none of the many wives included in that “we,” or their husbands, really stand out. Meanwhile, it goes on too long, as if an epilogue had been appended to a short story.
“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”: A boy in a wheelchair befriends a girl from the local shantytown and learns a disturbing secret about his own family. This is a perfectly fine story, though not my favorite.
“Esmeralda”: A cleaner in New York, who works hard but has a difficult life, falls for a lonely banker in the World Trade Center when she cleans his office. This one is told in the second person, which I usually hate and which literary writers seem to need to get out of their systems . . . but the story is strong enough to shine despite that (or perhaps even because of it). It’s vivid, memorable, and does a great of splicing together different timelines even in a short space.
“Old Girl”: Set in Boston, this is taken from the life of Corazon Aquino, who became a major figure in Philippine history, though you might not have guessed it from the meek wife here who caters to her flamboyant and ambitious husband. You don’t need to know anything about her to make sense of the story (though if you do, it won’t spoil the story and will add resonance to it). The family dynamics are carefully observed and the characters have no less complexity than if the author had had free rein to create them herself.
“A Contract Overseas”: A college student from an impoverished family is supported by her beloved brother, who takes a job in Saudi Arabia, but she can’t save him from his own problems. This is a vivid story with strong characters and realistic emotions, but I wanted a little more from the end.
“In the Country”: At about 85 pages, this is closer to a novella than a short story. It switches between two timelines – a young nurse who fights for better pay and marries an ambitious journalist, and that same woman later, after a devastating loss. This story fleshes out a lot about the recent history of the Philippines, and provides the context for “Old Girl.” It is quite good; the history perhaps overshadows the characters at times, but it’s fair to say that the two can’t be entirely separated for people whose lives are so tied up in history.
Overall, this is a great, well-written, well-observed collection of stories. I am definitely interested in reading more from this author.
This is an emotional, contemplative novel about two survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, who struggle to come to terms with their memories decades after the genocide. Unfortunately, its characters are half-baked: one of the protagonists is a blank slate despite nearing middle age, while the other is built up as a reformed villain only to turn out not to be a villain at all.
Teera arrives in Cambodia in 2003, for the first time since fleeing the country for Thailand and ultimately the United States in 1979, at the age of 13. She’s drawn to return in part by the dying wish of her aunt, the only other member of her family to survive, and in part by a letter from a man calling himself the Old Musician, who wants to give her musical instruments that belonged to her father. The Old Musician, aka Tun, lives in a monastery where he nurses his physical and emotional injuries from the days of the Khmer Rouge, and seems to live in a state of constant self-flagellation. The novel alternates between the perspectives of these two characters, as they wander about feeling lots of feelings, remembering their traumas in detail, and witnessing the harsh realities of Cambodia in 2003 (a country full of poverty and violence, though this never threatens the protagonists directly).
Given that this book revolves around the characters’ emotional journeys, it’s a shame they aren’t better-drawn. Teera in particular is a blank slate; she’s supposed to be 37, but I would have pegged her at late teens or early 20s, as she seems to have neither lived an adult life, nor to have thought about her life and what she wants from it. How does she feel about being single and childless at 37? How has her community of Cambodian refugees in Minnesota reacted to this? Has she ever had a romantic partner, or even a friend; has she connected with anyone other than her aunt in the last 24 years? And if not, how does she so easily fall into a romance once the book begins? Has she found purpose in her work as a grant writer (mentioned only to tell us she quit to go to Cambodia), or is it just a job, and if so, what does motivate and interest her? She apparently wants to be a writer, so what has she written in all that time, or if she hasn’t, why not? None of these questions are answered. Teera has a lot of feelings about her childhood, her family and her home country, but she’s lacking a personality and a life history outside of her childhood trauma. She doesn’t quite feel real.
Tun has had more of a life, though he’s still not a complex character. My issue here is that the book is presented as addressing the way Khmer Rouge victims and perpetrators now live side-by-side in Cambodia, and Tun is built up as the perpetrator in Teera’s father’s death. But it turns out to be one of those stories where, when our so-called villain protagonist’s history is revealed, he hasn’t actually done anything that awful. Tun joined the Khmer Rouge because he opposed the previous bad government and believed this would help bring democracy, and then he did his best at every turn. Every horrific thing he’s supposedly done turns out to have been either a mercy killing or something he was forced to do under torture or at gunpoint. I’m not sure what to make of this: was the author’s point that there were very few real villains, just lots of good people struggling with the terrible hand they were dealt? Or did she just chicken out on creating a complex and morally flawed character?
And while we’re at it, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the rest of the cast either. The repeated introduction of three-year-old girls orphaned under traumatic circumstances, and yet who are complete angels who bring nothing but joy and love (definitely never frustration or difficulty) to adult lives, was a bit much. One such child I might have grudgingly accepted, but two?
But I did learn a bit about Cambodia and its history from the book, and it’s a fairly quick read, though the subject matter is often dark and brutal. There’s a lot of presumably genuine emotion in it, as the author herself was a survivor who journeyed back to Cambodia in hopes of learning about her father’s fate. The writing style is fluid and easy to read, though I’d call it “wordy” more than “lyrical”; there was nothing particularly arresting to me about the use of language, but it’s certainly contemplative, with many passages embroidering on the characters’ thoughts, emotions, ideas, and sensations. While there isn’t a lot going on in the present-day plot, the story still manages to be engaging and vivid. I wouldn’t recommend this book on its literary merits, but as a deeply-felt novel by a genocide survivor, it’s worth a read for those interested in the places and issues addressed.
This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.
It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.
The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.
Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.