The Boat is a wonderful collection of short (and long) stories written by Australian author Nam Le. Le came to Australia with his parents as refugees on a boat as a one year old and it seems the sense of travel has stuck with him, both in terms of his own peripatetic wanderings and the diverse settings he has created for these seven tales, including Iowa, Columbia, New York, Hiroshima, Tehran and the final piece, in which he relates the story of his and his parents incredible and harrowing voyage on a leaky boat to Australia. This diversity of settings alone marks the collection as ambitious, yet setting alone would count for little were it not for the success of the stories themselves, for the stories, too, are incredibly diverse.
Take for instance, the second story, Cartagena, which centres on child assassin, Juan Pablo, in Columbia. Juan Pablo has sucessfully escaped the streets in becoming an assassin and now has enough money to ensure his mother lives in a nice apartment. But there are costs. He is asked in the course of his duties to knock off one of his friends and refuses. This, as you might suspect, doesn’t go down too well with his handler, ‘El Padre’, who calls him in for a ‘chat’. Given that they have never met, it is clear that the assassin’s own head now lays on the chopping block. The beauty of great short stories is that they leave you with unanswered questions. In short, they leave you wanting something a little more. The end of Cartagena, the coastal town which Juan Pablo dreams about escaping to, provides exactly the right balance.
There are some other gems too. Halflead Bay is a coming-of-age story set in a Victorian coastal town, a place in which everything ‘stinks of fish’ due to the dwindling fishing industry there. It focuses on the life of Jamie whose mother is dying and whose family are at odds at whether they should move to the larger nearby town in order to give her better care. Jamie’s father doesn’t seem to love his son, or at least respect him. Meanwhile, Jamie, newly feted for his heroics for the local footy team, falls for a girl named Allison whose ex is the town bully, Dory Townsend, a man kept back a couple of years at school, and a man who is rumoured to have killed a Chinese immigrant fisherman. If you think it all sounds a bit Tim Winton then you’d be right: Le’s ‘voice’ in this piece is very Winton-esque. For example, this piece describing Jamie and Allison’s late night meeting (p146):
“He was dazed, for a moment, by the trespass in her voice. He looked out. In the high moon the water was sequined with light. Muted flashes from the coastal freighters past the heads. Beyond that, stars.”
Later, (p148), we have Allison described thus:
“She pulled back, teeth flashing, and then she was laughing, liquidly, into the night. He waited, watching her. Sensing, deeper and deeper, how profoundly her laughter excluded him.”
The writing is powerful and compares well with Winton.
Fortunately for us, Le is very un-Winton-esque in the sense that his next story is not in the same coastal setting with similarly slightly broken people finding their footing in the world, but in Hiroshima, followed by Tehran.
Tehran Calling is a highlight, a great story about friendship set against the backdrop of the totalitarian regime. Sarah meets her best friend, Parvin, at a US university. Parvin is a woman who left Tehran to go to the US, where she sets up a call-in radio programme agitating for change and woman’s rights in her homeland. She has people call in from Iran and beams their stories back into Iran from the US. But Parvin then decides to move back to Tehran, and after a failed romance Sarah goes to ‘visit’. She tells Mahmoud, one of Parvin’s friends, that she has come to Iran ‘to escape a man.’ Mahmoud tells her, “Then you are the first American to escape to Iran.”
Sarah’s journey of self-discovery is set against Parvin’s friends’ efforts to protest their lack of rights. The brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl provides a stark introduction for Sarah into the ways of the regime. Then Parvin herself goes missing. She had been taken once before by the authorities, but all Sarah and her new friends can do is wait and see whether Parvin will turn up alive or dead. The horrors of such repression are brought home with controlled ferocity by Le.
For a first book, The Boat is a great achievement. None other than Cate Kennedy, one of Australia’s premier writers of short fiction, is quoted as saying that The Boat has put the short story back in the “literary centre stage.” There’s no finer praise than that.
Who knows where Le’s imaginative footsteps will take him – and us – next? I for one wait with eager anticipation.
The Boat by Nam Le
Source: won in a twitter competition run by Penguin.