Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Best stories in collection show compelling artistry
Floating Like the Dead is the title story in a first collection of short stories by Yasuko Thanh.
A Victoria-based writer, she won the highly regarded Journey Prize for that story. It and the final work in the collection, His Lover's Ghost, provide glowing evidence of a writer with compelling artistry and technique to burn.
The rest of the collection shows her technique, but the artistry is thinner, more brittle. Some stories often teeter on the edge of cliché; some fall over it, though all with skill.
The two best, however, deserve close attention.
Both deal with death and memory, and how they haunt the lives of the dying and their survivors. In Floating Like the Dead, set on a small island off the B.C. coast near the turn of the 20th century, Chinese workers, imported to build the railway, but who brought leprosy with them, are abandoned to die under government aegis.
The three remaining men hope for release, dream of the China they left, plan for a future, which will never come. One dies, officials arrive to note it, and what is left of life goes on.
The approach is simple, clear, and understated, but with a bite in the prose. No one is condemned yet the ache of injustice is present. How will something like this be remembered is the unstated question in this remarkable story.
Thanh doesn't give answers, perhaps isn't interested in answers. The haunted reader can't supply them either.
Equally impressive is His Lover's Ghost. It is set in the early '90s. Vince and Raymond, a longtime couple, are facing Raymond's approaching death, possibly from AIDS, though this is not spelled out.
Raymond has a vision of a ghost, and believes, bolstered by his cold mother's story of an uncle banished from the family due to his unstable and, finally, insane behaviour, that this uncle, Charlie, is haunting the family.
Vince is impatient with the obsession, though he realizes, guiltily, it is a desperate jealousy since, with so little time left, he wants all of Raymond's attention.
The search for Charlie's grave, grass-covered in the ruins of a closed mental hospital, keeps Raymond alive. They eventually find a piece of a grave that they take to be Charlie's, and in presenting it to his mother, though she remains intractable, a kind of peace is found.
Again, no judgment is made of people with their impatience with death and often thwarted sympathy. In Charlie's haunting, Vince finds again his love, and Raymond his understanding of death.
The rest is, as noted, a mixed bag. Two stories, almost interchangeable, concern women who abandon their lives in North America and Europe and end up with feckless, brutish men in Mexico (in Hunting in Spanish) or Honduras (in Hustler).
Motivations, except for a liking for rough sex, are difficult to place in these women while the men reek of Latino stereotype. The fetid atmosphere comes through, but little is believable.
Better is The Peach Trees of Nhat Tan. In Saigon, a woman abandoned for a mistress by her smug husband regains power through becoming a traditional healer. Measured, and sure of its subject, the story almost works.
Worst are Helen and Frank, a Hallmark card of mush about a too perfect elderly couple going off to die in the woods, and Lula May's Love Stories, a weak southern gothic tale of white trailer trash taking in a nice girl.
All is forgiven considering the two great stories in the collection, but one might approach her next collection with a little trepidation as much as great anticipation.
Rory Runnells is the artistic director of Manitoba Association of Playwrights.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J7
(1 of 23 articles for this week)