Book Review: ‘The Boat’ by Nam Le

June 21, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Award-winning writer Nam Le is kind of a hero to me.  Refugee parents from Vietnam, grew up in Australia, became a lawyer, hated it, quit, then pursued a life of writing.  Studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published his first book, The Boat, a collection of short stories.  Won a zillion awards for it including the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year.

Single-author short story collections are almost extinct these days (and with good reason — it seems most readers prefer their books to tell a big story, or even part of a massive story, and reading different stories in the same voice from the same writer can potentially become tedious).  That’s why The Boat is such a phenomenal achievement.  The stories are so varied in scope and depth, characters and location, and yet are capable of being so honest, painful, beautiful and haunting — it’s a powerful collection from a confident, crafty writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Boat contains seven short stories, each ranging from around 25-50 pages in length.  They take us all around the world, to places like Iowa, Colombia  Vietnam, Tehran, Hiroshima, New York, Australia.  They are all literary pieces that exhibit fine craftsmanship and stunning imagery (not surprising considering Le started out in poetry), so they won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.  Even though they are short, some of them can be considered as slow-paced, the type of story you need to take in slowly and savour, bit by bit, and maybe re-read once you’re done.

I enjoyed reading The Boat as a book, but as is the case with most short story collections, I preferred some stories more than others.  For me, the best stories were at the beginning and end.  The first one, entitled Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, is a powerful story about a strained relationship between father and son.  The last one, The Boat, is about a young girl’s journey on a refugee boat and the bond she forms with a small boy.  These two were my favourites.  Was it a coincidence that both of them were heavily linked to Le’s Vietnamese background?  I don’t know, but I found them the most honest, the most engaging.  Does that mean the other stories about cultures Le might not be as familiar with weren’t as good?  Maybe.  I’ll leave that to the individual reader to decide, but to me it is amazing that he even attempted to write about things that ought to be completely foreign to him.  I only wish I could develop that kind of self-assuredness someday.

You don’t see many short story collections getting published these days, but The Boat is the kind of book that made me wish there were more of them.

4 out of 5