The Vietnam War is an undeniable part of American history. It’s painful, true, and it’s there. It always will be. It’s like a ghost, always hovering on the fringes, never forgotten. In The Frangipani Hotel, young author Violet Kupersmith addresses the ghostly nature of the Vietnam War and combines that theme with her interpretation of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories. These stories, a mix of old and new, vividly capture the ghost of the Vietnam War and the effect it had on that generation of Vietnamese and the generations that followed, whether in the motherland or in America.
The result is stunning, even more when you take into account that this collection is a debut by an author two years out of college. Yes, I am so jealous, but also overjoyed at her success. It gives me hope. This collection contains nine short stories, all penned when the author was in university, all with two things in common: a touch of the supernatural and the feeling of displacement that followed the destruction of the Vietnam War.
In the first story, simply an opener, a Vietnamese-American girl begs her grandmother to tell her the story of “the boat trip:” how her ancestor escaped as a refugee in 1975, headed for America. The girl needs an “A” for a school project, and her grandmother chides her for taking her family and her history for granted. This short opening story sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which the characters deal with the past and the present, their identities and their culture. The characters’ lives have been changed forever by the War. It is a new Vietnam, and the characters must face it.
Some set in Vietnam, some in America, these stories are also retellings of traditional Vietnamese ghost stories, which I found incredibly moving. Reading these stories afforded me a glimpse into pre-war Vietnamese culture, which I had known very little about prior to this (they teach you about the War, after all, but not so much about Vietnam as a country). Kupersmith’s stories not only took me to a modern Vietnam, cramped side streets, pho stalls, and oppressive heat included, but also to a time before colonialism, and highlighted a rich, imaginative culture that often scared me to my very core.
These are ghost stories, and ghostly they are. There are animate corpses walking on water, their intestines ripped and bloody. There is a young, immortal girl preying on the men who fall under her love spell. An old man periodically transforms into a fourteen-foot python in modern Texas, seemingly spreading his disease. Alleycats with sharp talons. Nightmarish banh mi vendors. A dying, shriveled man who feeds on your stories and takes your face. Each story incorporates a legend or folktale, updating it with modern cultural themes and one eye trained on the Vietnam War.
The result is an ode to Vietnam, and to the author’s cultural history. It’s both American and Asian, old world and new. The writing is also deft and precise, impressive for someone only a couple years older than myself, in fact. Each story contains a fresh voice and interesting characters, and if the stories lack depth sometimes, I can forgive the author due to lack of experience and wait eagerly for her novel. I’m sure it will blow me away.
Kupersmith actually reminds me of a less exhausting Jhumpa Lahiri. Her characters are more resilient, to be sure, and the immigrant experience is described with less emphasis on self-pity, and more on new beginnings. With a reanimated corpse or two thrown in for good measure. Also, it just happened that I read this work right after I read Daphne du Maurier’s collection of stories, also touched with the supernatural and featuring suspenseful events, and this work reminded me of du Maurier’s careful plotting, the way she introduces a mystery in the beginning and leads the reader as if by a leash to a breathless climax, only to be left wishing for more. Four stars.
Note: I received this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This title will be released on April 1, 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, Random House.
Kupersmith, V. The Frangipani Hotel. (2014) Random House.