A little gem

The Frangipani Hotel (NetGalley)
Violet Kupersmith

Our muddy patch of the worlds 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. 

Writer Violet Kupersmith gives us a peek into Vietnam in her short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel. A little bit Peony in Love, a little bit Tiger’s Wife, this debut work is gem. I sometimes find

magical realism a stretch, with its emphasis on lyricism over plot and character. But Kupersmith serves up both. Centered around a hotel that has seen better days in a run-down Saigon neighborhood, her stories brush up against each other, but never collide. The characters are complex, if not always likeable: the self-important uncle who runs the Frangipani, two sisters who (reluctantly) are sent off to explore their heritage one spring break, an old man who turns python, an American expat who leaves Vietnam with more than she arrived, and a nursing home resident whose war terrors materialize.

Novels of China and Japan have long been popular with American readers–think Pearl Buck and Lisa See and Amy Tan and James Claval. Other Asian countries are not so well-represented and I’m left to wonder why, considering the United States has had her fingers in so many Asian pots. The only other book I’ve read about Vietnam was Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a refugee’s memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen. One review I read said that Frangipani Hotel was little more than a graduate student’s writing project; another said the ghosts stories were chilling. I couldn’t disagree more. It was a satisfying read, told in a fresh voice with just enough magic to reveal a Vietnam I wouldn’t have otherwise known.

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