Eric Nguyen gives an in-depth review of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of contemporary short stories based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales. These stories are fantastical yet thought-provoking, often taking the narrative of Vietnamese displacement and replacing with a magical realist bent.
In the first story of The Frangipani Hotel, Violet Kupersmith’s debut collection of fiction, a girl asks her grandmother to tell her the boat story. “Communists! Thai pirates! Starvation! That’s an A-plus story,” she says. At first, the grandmother resists, but after more prodding, she concedes, only to tell the story of her wedding night aboard a boat. When the granddaughter protests, the grandmother argues, “[Y]ou asked for my boat story,” then continues with a strange and fantastical tale of a stormy night, a corpse in the water, and the mad spirit that possessed it. In a last ditch effort to save her and her husband’s lives, the grandmother tells the spirit, “We are just two wet and weary souls, like you.”
At this, like the magic that resurrected it in the first place, the spirit spins on its tiptoes and “[begins] wandering away across the waves once more,” only to leave her with an ominous feeling about her own fate. When she ends the story, she tells her granddaughter the lesson to be learned: “The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.”
The lesson serves a rule for Kupersmith’s subversive collection that takes familiar tropes and plays with readers’ expectations. In the case of “A Boat Story,” Kupersmith takes the narrative of Vietnamese displacement and replaces it, unexpectedly yet pleasingly, with a magical realist bent. We ask for stories, Kupersmith gives us a book of wondrous, if uneven, tales.
Most of the stories here are magical: in the title story, a ghost haunts an aging Hanoi hotel; in “Turning Back,” an old man transforms into a snake only to return into human form miles away from home; in “Little Brother,” a truck driver finds out his passenger is slowly stealing his face.
Kupersmith’s stories are impressive in that they twist the familiar. This, however, is not reliant on the addition of fantastical elements—something that not many Vietnamese American writers have done, opting more for the realist mode. Rather, something in these characters’ realities is always askew, always threatening. In short, they seem to live uncanny worlds, at once familiar yet not quite. This is perhaps best exemplified in “Skin and Bones,” when the main character runs away from a possessed bánh mì vendor (yes, you read that correctly) only to stop completely, unable to recognize Saigon:
“With a terrible, sinking feeling, she realized that for the first time in her life, she had no idea where she was….She walked down alleys that seemed to coil and rearrange themselves like a knot of serpents. Her feet did not lead her home as they had done before…”
Vietnam in these stories is constantly shifting. To navigate it is to navigate a maze, to look at one’s relatives, even, means to risk looking into a playhouse mirror. In “The Red Veil,” a woman finds a scarf in her backyard; immediately, her stepdaughter sees her stepmother’s face becoming strange and grotesque:
“When she sat down across from her at the table, Nhi noticed at once that something was wrong with Xuan’s eye. The left one. When she sat down across from her at the table, Nhi could see that it was bloodshot and watery, the veins visible, the pupil strangely dilated. The right one, however, appeared normal.”
Kupersmith’s vision is fresh and thought provoking as it examines the post-war world where tourists (and capitalism) rub against the ghosts of the communist dream; where white American female expats compete with native-born Vietnamese girls for the attention of a white man; and where the Frangipani Hotel, a vestige of French colonialism originally named L’Hotel Franngipane, is “crooked and falling apart.” Thematically, with The Frangapani Hotel, Violet Kupersmith does to Vietnam what Rattawut Lapcharoensap did to postcolonial Thailand in Sightseeing—though, to be sure, Kupersmith is not quite the stylist. Her prose runs clunky at times as they pile up information:
“Bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich, was one of the more positive souvenirs from the colonial era—a culinary hybrid of French bread, pickled vegetables, pâté, and assorted meat—and though Thuy had never tasted one before, she knew it would be delicious from the smell alone.”
Or as she attempts a casual tone that in the end comes off as inauthentic and sloppy: “Grandma! What the hell was that?…Serious, if Mom heard you talking like that she’d think you were losing it and send you right to an old folks’ home!”
At times, her words can glide, making the familiar strange, beautiful, and evocative. In one of the collection’s strongest pieces, “Turning Back,” she writes: “We drive too fast down deserted expanses of the freeway and I let my right hand hang out of the window, cupping the night and the wind in my fingers while lights that are not stars twinkle all around me.”
But such moments are too few and far in between. On the whole, Kupersmith is not above packaged words: old fountains are “bone dry”; “heartbeat[s]” are always “quickening”; stomachs “drop.” Or awkwardly-constructed sentences: “When he was at home he tended to lapse into silence and just watch her moving about, him trying to give a name to the strange dread he felt.”
Additionally, for a collection that uses storytelling within stories, it never takes the opportunity to explore this beyond the use of it as a plot device. Because of this, their use seems less intentional and more of a writing tic.
But perhaps this reader is wanting too much. Here is a young writer with such unique stories to tell and the ability to tell them excitingly. The collection is charming and at times Poe-like in their twists and turns and grotesque sensibility. The ideas the book explore is also intriguing. What more can one ask for? Given time, it will be interesting to see what else Kupersmith has to offer.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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