The Boat is Nam Le’s modern Australian classic, republished in this special hard cover Penguin edition, picked up on a whim along Monkey Grip one afternoon in the National Library of Australia bookshop. Maybe I judged a book by its cover – the artistry of this edition is beautiful, textural, tactile – so when it came down to actually reading this object, this pretty book, I had no idea what to expect. And I was in turns unsure, bemused, wrapped, worried, enthralled. There is so much diversity in this collection, such pure, clear voices; some I love, some I did not, all I respected because of what Le has created.
This is a collection of seven short stories, heavily weighted by “Halflead Bay”, long and achingly Australian, youthful, bronzed; and bookended by two speculatively autobiographical or memoir-like stories: the first “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” of a young Vietnamese writer visited by his father in Iowa; and “The Boat”, a boat people story, a refugee story, a story of painful detail and struggle.
Across these stories and all in between, Le has this diversity of voices that, once within, is consistent, absorbing; to the extent where the next story, the next narrator, the next character is jarring, unbelievable. I had to pause, shake the last story out of my head, start the next one. There is a small mourning each time you finish a short story like this, and move on to the next one. Le handles it through a deft control of language, a soft touch with imparting information, a knowledge of local slang and style, a manipulation of the way words fall. There is a complete and total distinction between stories and it is something to behold.
That said, I did not like all the stories. “Cartanega” set in Columbia, in particular, didn’t sit right, the writer feeling like a tourist, therefore making the reader feel like a total voyeur. And as the second story after the first seemingly memoir-inspired tale, it instilled no faith about Le’s ability to inhabit other characters in other worlds. It had some strengths, but ultimately failed for me. It felt too cool, a little forced.
Other stories, however, were just incredible. “Halfhead Bay” just aches with that Australian connection to the coast, the constantly salty body, the heat in your bones, the world that just revolves around the tides. It is a life I just know and the writing in that story blew me away. It’s not a beautiful world, there are inexpressible emotions and a dying mum and stupid boys and growing girls, all distilled into Le’s narration:
He’d fallen off the jetty once. He was with a group of mates, chucking rocks at the moored boats. Longest throw won, loser was a poofter. His turn: one moment he was doing a run-up and the next he was dead – what dead must be like – a thrown switch, a fizzling of the senses, the sound sucked out of things. Your eyes a dark cold green hurt.
It reminded me of Tim Winton, that story: the connection to the sea, the way the environment changes your world, is your world, as well as being what you are in, the confused society that ebbs and flows in its own way around it. So perfectly captured.
Another story, “Tehran Calling”, also captured my imagination. Sarah, an American lawyer, broken hearted, flies to Iran to meet up with her old friend Parvin. Through the cultural shock, the jet lag, the very real fear for her safety, Sarah just seems to muddle through and captures those moments of travel, of revelation, that confuse and elate. Driving through the city, not focusing and thinking these buildings could be in any city, she sees that:
…wherever she looked, just underneath the outside of things, something was always slightly off: ordinary buildings listed toward, or away from, one another – their lines never quite plumb; straight roads turned into alleys wending into dead ends. And words – words everywhere – on trucks, street signs, T-shirts – seemed like a language that had been melted, meandering up and down like quavers and clefs on invisible staves.
The Boat is a dextrous collection, diverse, distinct. Le’s language seems to just inhabit his characters; words falling onto the page just right, the style emanating their mood, their needs, their manner. While not every character landed with me, this is a great book, with so many stories from different times and places coming from just one place.