If you've been reading this blog somewhat regularly, you might have noticed I've struggled with short stories recently. I've gone through a slew of collections that left me feeling like I just wasn't getting it, and I often pondered just giving up on short-form literature entirely. But then I'd remember several collections that I really, really liked (The Civilized World, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, and The Thing Around Your Neck immediately come to mind) so I persisted. I kept reading those collections, even though they left me so frustrated. And now, now it has all paid off, because I found another collection that I really, really enjoyed.
The Frangipani Hotel reminded me a great deal of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. The latter has supernatural or paranormal occurrences spattered throughout--nothing massive, but just enough to rise the hairs on the back of the characters' necks and let you know that not everything is quite what it seems, that there are monsters lurking under the bed and on every street corner. As one character says, "Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. There's ancient and ugly things waiting to harm you in that darkness. Yes, of course they're there in daylight, to--they're just harder to spot" (80).
Let me be clear: these are not scary stories. They will not have you checking under the bed and booby-trapping your closet door before you go to sleep. However, they are creepy because they show the skewed perceptions people can have of the world around them, and how something that seems like it's one thing can very easily be something completely different. I really loved that aspect. Some of them are creepier than others; "The Frangipani Hotel" and "Little Brother" were definitely a little more out-there than "Guests," for example. In "The Frangipani Hotel," a strange girl shows up who isn't officially staying at the hotel, and she's perpetually thirsty--and possibly far older than she seems. In "Little Brother," a man agrees to give a ride to a dying boy, only to be warned by a nurse not to talk to the passenger--and if he must talk, don't tell the boy his name. Both of these contained distinct notes of menace that were largely absent in "Guests," where the strangest things that happen are a coincidence with a cat and a messed-up manicure. But story collections always vary in quality, and the misses here weren't total flops. They didn't really impact my enjoyment of the collection as a whole.
Oh, one more thing--this collection is focused around Vietnam. Some of the stories take place there, some of them take place in the US but focus on characters who are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American. I don't really know anything about Vietnamese mythology, so I have no authority on the subject of whether or not these have any real "authenticity" about them, but I really enjoyed them. They have a good feel to them, and they don't require a lot of outside knowledge in order to be understood. They didn't leave me feeling stupid or like I didn't get it. They're not meant to be "brainy," which I feel is a common problem with short stories--the authors feel like they have to prove something, and the stories come off pretentious as a result. That wasn't the case here. These were just good, and accessible to the average reader. They don't require an entire college literature course to break them down and understand them. Some of them--most of them, really--leave the climactic action off the page, after the end of the story, leaving you to imagine the menaces waiting after the words end. That's probably a good stylistic choice--what's scarier than your own imagination, after all?
I highly recommend this one. The stories are creepy but not scary, and very easy to read. I devoured this just like Thuy devoured her banh mi.
4 stars out of 5.