I heard Madeleine Thien read from this collection in 2001 in a small library theatre in London, Ontario; I recall that she was very gracious and spoke of being honoured to appear with the other women who were reading that night. (I heard Joan Barfoot, Bonnie Burnard and Jane Urquhart read in that theatre: one of them may have been sharing the stage.)
She was soft-spoken and gentle-mannered, yet direct and confident too. After the event, I read a couple of the stories, but only this summer did I return to it, reading through it steadily and contentedly.
Even though the stories circle around traumatic events, and you might expect an edge to their unfolding, there is a tenderness to their telling. Families fragment and individuals erode, but the emotions are distilled, so that one feels a simmering sadness – beneath the depression and rage, guilt and loss – while life goes on.
This passage from “Dispatch” hints at the twinning of political and personal losses against a backdrop of perseverance:
“While your marriage stutters on, revolutions rise and fall, blooming on the midday news like some kind of summer flower.”
The final story is the longest and contains echoes of Do Not Say That We Have Nothing, as the story revolves around a family shattered by revolution and resettlement. The grown characters who left Indonesia behind did not really leave behind their country or, at least, they did not sever ties in the way that some of the characters assumed.
“Despite the violence and the political tension, my parents missed Indonesia. It came out in small ways, their English interrupted by a word of Chinese, a word of Indonesian. The exotic exclamations at the end of their sentences, ah yah!, or calling me to dinner, makan makan. My mother told me that irian, a Biak word, means ‘place of the volcano’ and that jaya, an Indonesian word, mean ‘success’. But those were the only Indonesian words I learned.”
These questions of belonging-but-not-belonging and longing-inwardly-while-outwarding-denying-it contribute to a sense of unease throughout the story, even alongside some poignant scenes (for instance, when the father takes the young daughter to work with him at the furniture store when she is not feeling well enough to go to school).
These questions play out on a broader scale but also within family units, so that there are many opportunities to observe a child’s perspective of their parent(s). The title story is a striking example of this, which recalls Alice Munro’s “Royal Beatings”:
“When I was a child, I did not love my father because he was complicated, because he was human, because he needed me to. A child does not know yet how to love a person that way.”
This story has also forever changed the way that I cook rice. And I think that’s one of the reasons that I respond so viscerally and completely to Madeleine Thien’s storytelling, which simultaneously captures the most ordinary details and the most expansive themes.
In one moment, this:
“He was nothing like our father. Tom’s face was handsome and strong, and his hair, light blond, curled in tufts. Our father’s face was dark and sad. Our father combed his hair with Brylcreem until it shone. He smelled of eucalyptus and cooking and warmth. But he and Tom looked at Irene with the same expression, mixed-up sadness and love and strange devotion.” [Four Days from Oregon]
And in another moment, this:
“She believes in her own recklessness. It is the only faith she has.” [Bullet Train]
And beneath both of those moments, a lingering change in my reality, as I rinse my own grains of rice, prepare them for a meal, and think back to this story.
But the story which I cannot escape is “Alchemy”.
“They slept in separate room, Mom on the couch and Dad in the bedroom. Sometimes they sat in the same room though neither of them would acknowledge the other. They had perfected it, made it an art to see something but believe it wasn’t there.”
Here we have a concrete observation about one set of parents, which is stunning on the surface. But simmering beneath is the concept of absence and silence, a moment in which readers can realise that this is a writer who is just as preoccupied by (perhaps even more preoccupied by) what is not discussed, what is not seen.
This is true, too, of the crux of “Alchemy”, wherein the main character does not tell something that she should have told, does not admit to herself that she has seen what she has seen. But even though her guilt is overwhelming (as much so as in the title story), it is an even greater absence which haunts this story.
If Madeleine Thien was a different kind of storyteller, I would beg her to continue this story.
But, then, if she was a different kind of storyteller, I would not have been so profoundly affected by her work.
Not only by what she tells, but by what she does not tell.
Have you read Madeleine Thien’s work? Or, is she on your TBR?
Contents: Simple Recipes, Four Days from Oregon, Alchemy, Dispatch, House, Bullet Train, A Map of the City