Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review:The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith

First published:- April 1st, 2014

Published by:- Spiegel & Grau

Star rating:- 

What your mind dredges up from memory and consciousness upon the utterance of the word 'Vietnam' is wholly predictable. That naked girl child of Trảng Bàng fleeing a napalm attack in terror, her scream silenced by the stillness of the well-known picture you have glanced at time and again or the grotesque image of blood-soaked bodies heaped by the side of a rice field in My Lai that continued to burn like a stinging slap across the face of the American administration long after the troops had pulled out of Vietnam. But the sheer tragedy of a nation being whittled down to the status of being defined by an ill-famed proxy war and a trendy word with an 'ism' at the end, has its roots in our collective apathy. 

Marguerite Duras' Indo-China (as described in her fictionalized memoir The Lover) was a place inextricably linked to the abuse of her childhood years, a cultural melting pot, an eerie and exotic landscape which served to simultaneously heighten and assuage her mental anguish, a nation still resigned to being seen as just another jewel in the crown of Europe. But Violet Kupersmith's Vietnam is the hum of the life force coursing through her veins; the horror and beauty that this culture encompasses, a hand-me-down from her ancestors. And it is this Vietnam, we have not cared enough to know, which inhabits these short stories. The tinge of paranormal intrigue and the elements of suspense are merely there to help you keep turning the pages with ease but it is the landscape itself which towers above the set of native Vietnamese characters and the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S., metamorphosing into a humanly protagonist narrating a melancholic tale of personal woes.

The water nymph boarder of Hotel Frangipani, the ailing old Mrs Tran whose time on earth runs out while waiting for her now-American daughter and grand-daughters to visit her from far off Houston, the soldier-turned-calligrapher who cannot banish the horrifying memories of accidentally killing a civilian girl while serving the Viet Cong, the septuagenarian who involuntarily undergoes a morbid transformation into a giant python at times and ends up recounting the story of his life to a random Vietnamese American teen, the white girl who works at the American consulate in Ho Chi Minh are many among the imaginary guides that Ms Kupersmith designates to familiarize readers with an assortment of folktale-ish stories with elements of horror as the common running theme.

To quibble, some of the stories have been fashioned in an amateurish way in which character tropes such as the thoughtful, unattractive, fat sister and the insensitive, skinny one and the ignorant, condescending American tourist abound. But the structural and thematic integrity of the remaining stories made up for the flaws of the former and caused my 3 stars to be elevated to 3.5 stars.

Subtlety isn't Ms Kupersmith's strongest suit but her writing serves as a good example of potency of theme and plot surpassing the need for linguistic adornments at times and a rude reminder of my little to no knowledge of Vietnam sans the 'war', an oversight which needs to be remedied post haste. 


Review also posted on Goodreads & Amazon.

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