The Boat, by Nam Le. A 21st century classic

This is a book review I did for a Uni assignment. I got 20 out of 20 for it.  Yeah, I’m a bit proud of that.

The Boat: A book review

By Nam Le
Published by Penguin Group (Australia)
9780143009610 (pbk)
$16.95, 315 pages

I’m not big on reading short stories. I’ve always been a long-form novel kind of guy. It wasn’t until I read Nam Le’s The Boat that my opinion of short stories changed.

For those who don’t know, The Boat is the first collection of short stories from Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian who now lives in the United States and edits fiction for the Harvard Review. He has won numerous awards for short fiction and The Boat has been translated into multiple languages. The eponymous title story is used in some classrooms to teach students about the plight of refugees.

The Boat is an extraordinary piece of work. It reads like a text book on how to write good short stories – any student would benefit from reading it. Every story is told from the perspective of vastly different protagonists, who vary wildly in age, maturity, and experience, and each of the stories is markedly different. Whether it’s a 14-year old gang banger/would-be assassin in Columbia in ‘Cartagena’, an aging New York artist dying of cancer in ‘Meeting Elise’, or a fiercely patriotic, Japanese girl in the third-grade in 1945 Hiroshima, Le writes each of his characters with an incredible level of nuance that genuinely engages the reader. Each story is longer than a conventional short story, giving his characters the time they need to percolate emotionally. This doesn’t diminish them in any way – I challenge anyone to put one of these tales down without finishing it.

The stories that bookend the collection are set in New York (‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’) and on a Vietnamese refugee boat (‘The Boat’) respectively. The first tells of a well-educated writer seeking his Vietnamese veteran father’s approval and their inevitable cultural and emotional distance; the last is a tale of a traumatic refugee boat journey interspersed with flashbacks to life under the Viet Cong. I suspect these are both deeply personal, however it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t – Le demonstrates an ability to realise worlds and characters with astounding detail and pragmatism.

Every story in this collection is poignant; there are no happy endings. Le writes believable stories that strive to explore the humanity of the characters and events from multiple points of view, with realistic consequences. Le changes his writing style with each piece, never allowing you to pigeon-hole him. It’s almost as if he is flexing his writing muscles for the sake of it, but each story moves with its own rhythm, textures and emotions, the like of which amateurs such as I can only marvel.

As soon as I finished The Boat I immediately gave it away to a friend – not because I hated the book, but because I was desperate for someone else to read it and experience the level of enthusiasm I had. The Boat is a truly profound piece of writing, one that affected me greatly, and I believe that it will be regarded as a classic of the 21st century.

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