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BOOK REVIEW: The Boat by Nam Le


Nam Le took the literary world by storm with the publication of his debut collection of short stories The Boat. Collecting together seven stories that present disparate views on the world, The Boat presents Le’s versatility with narrative voice and subject matter.

The opening story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is the most self-conscious and potentially autobiographical of the stories, featuring a young writer named Nam who is working Iowa Writer’s Workshop master’s when his father comes to visit. Urged to mine his personal story for material, Nam writes his father’s story prompting a conflict between the two, and contemplation on the nature of truth and memory. As a reader, this is the story which felt most contrived which may have been Le’s intention. It reads like a writing exercise from the very program he writes about and has none of the emotional depth of the six other stories. The critics raved about this story and its ties to the other stories (a character in “Love and Honor…” suggests to the fiction Nam Le: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”). Le covers several of these topics in later stories: Colombian assassins in “Cartagena,” Hiroshima orphans in “Hiroshima” and New York painters in “Meeting Elise.”

The strongest story in my opinion is “Tehran Calling.” In a few short pages, Le produces many fully realized characters that all have incredibly distinct voices. The sense of menace experienced by Sarah during her visit to Tehran leaks from the page and affects the reader’s mood and pace of reading. I became jumpy while reading and the feeling of unease remained even when I returned to the story a second reading. The characters are sympathetic yet repulsive at the same time, a difficult feat for any writer and astonishing in one as young as Le.

Nam Le shows his muscle in The Boat and it will be interesting to watch how he matures as a writer. From the promise shown here, he is without doubt a writer with great promise.

ISBN10: 030726808X
ISBN13: 9780307268082

288 Pages
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: May 2008
Author Website:


posted under fiction, short stories

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