Hamish Hamilton, $29.95 pb, 312 pp, 9780241015414
At a time when some fiction writers are busy defending their right to incorporate autobiographical elements, and some non-fiction writers are being charged with fabrication, it seems timely of Nam Le to begin his collection of stories with one that plays with notions of authenticity in literature.
The narrator of ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, ‘Nam Le’, is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as was the author. Like Nam Le, he has worked as a lawyer. This story has already been widely anthologised and it is easy to see why; it is clever and comical, evocative and moving – not to mention deeply intriguing. But this is not a collection whose chief concern is the creation of stories. The seven inventive narratives that comprise The Boat take us from Colombian slums to the South China Sea, from Hiroshima to New York, from Iowa to the Australian coast. Different cultures are explored in surprising ways.
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. 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.