Daring to fail

This is my review of Le Bateau (Litterature & Documents) by N Le.

Originality is the common theme in this collection of seven stories, varied in length, which range widely over different countries, cultures and themes, boldly shifting viewpoints by gender and age as if to “try them all out”.

The the last and most powerful story is “Le Bateau” which gives its name to the entire book Although the author Nam Le was only a baby when he made the perilous journey to Australia as one of the Vietnamese “boat people”, tales of this harrowing experience must have fed his vivid account of a young woman’s attempt to survive life on board as the ship is lashed by a storm and the stores of food and fresh water run out. She is befriended by a capricious woman, whose son, although disturbed by the effects of war, and possibly autistic, fascinates her and arouses in her a maternal love which the mother seems at times to lack.

This and the first story struck me as the most authentic and well-structured, perhaps because they are connected to the family culture and history with which Nam Le identifies, despite his absorption into life in Australia and the US. With its indigestibly long title “Love, honour, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice, the opening story has aspects of autobiography in describing a young writer struggling to meet deadlines, ambivalent as to whether he should focus on “ethnic literature” to earn money. His dilemma is increased by the ethical question of whether he should use as a theme his father’s experience of a massacre at the hands of brutalised American GIs. Even if the older man is prepared to recall it in detail to iron out the “errors” in his son’s story, does that mean he is prepared to see it sold and read by westerners who will soon forget it? Although the ambiguous ending feels like a let-down at first, on reflection it is interesting to debate the various interpretations one can make.

Nam Le’s upbringing in Australia may have given a particular genuine and moving quality to the almost novella-length “Halfhead Bay”, in which teenage Jamie steels himself to face up to the school bully Dory after daring to make a play for his girlfriend. Should he be protected from Dory’s fists so that he can once again strike a winning goal for the school team, or for the sake of his dying mother? The subtle and complex “coming of age” drama takes place in the context of a family’s inability to face up to the reality of a crisis.

Despite the varied themes, the essential style remains the same. Each story develops gradually, so that the reader has to work out what it going on, and it is impossible to predict the outcome. Heavy use is made of flashbacks, which sometimes disrupt the narrative flow, although they could also be said to reflect the way the mind works, drifting back to past events triggered by experiences of the present, or perhaps as an escape from it. Nam Le creates some fascinating dilemmas, as when a young gangster is ordered to kill a friend to save his own life. He knows how to create page-turning tension, but the endings are often disappointing, an abrupt anti-climax. “Tehran calling” was so nebulous as to leave me completely unengaged.

Overall, Nam Le is a gifted writer, with a plain, clear style which draws one in. It is an effective vehicle for conveying subtle nuances in people’s relationships with each other, and descriptions filled with vividly striking images.

I agree with reviewers who feel that he is better at writing prose than structuring a short story. Each one is mined from a rich enough seam to fuel a full-length novel. He reminds me somewhat of Alice Munro’s short stories with their deceptively simple prose and sometimes meandering, unpredictable storyline.

I read these short stories in the French translation, which I would not recommend since the original English seems more suited to Nam Le’s style.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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