The characters in Yasuko Thanh’s stories are whirlwinded out of their routine lives, whether because they stepped into the chaos or because it was heading straight for them.
They make remedies from flowers and roots (or smoke them).
They see ghosts (or become them).
Each of the stories are remarkably distinct in terms of their subjects.
Their scenes are sketched succinctly in the opening sentences of each story; the reader immediately has a clear understanding of the set-up and is quickly immersed in the upset.
There are some similarities between the women in “Lula May’s Love Stories”, “Hunting in Spanish” and “Hustler”, women that my grandmother would have said were looking for love in all the wrong places.
But even those stories feel distinct, with their settings in the southern US, Mexico, and Honduras, with the women in various states of departure.
The collection has the feel of an MFA candidate’s portfolio, which is to say that they feel a little like class assignments but, for all that, they are stories which would receive high marks for their solid execution.
From the opening sentence (“It’s a funny thing to know the exact date of your death.”), it’s clear that Yasuko Thanh will not avoid difficult subjects.
A narrator who has been sentenced to death and is awaiting execution? She can do that.
A man who lives in quarantine on D’Arcy Island off the west coast of British Columbia in the early 20th century, with seriously dwindling numbers in the colony? She can do that too.
Yasuko Thanh takes her readers to Teotitlán, to a German farm, and to Saigon but the consistent destination is the human heart. Love and loneliness, betrayal and persistence, desperation and promises: border-crossings.
Some stories will naturally appeal more than others, and that is true of the pacing and the use of language as well.
For instance, in “Swing-Blade Knife”, some statements might not settle with all readers. If the story develops smoothly, the reader won’t have as many opportunities to recall that it’s a fiction, whereas construction that calls attention to itself yanks the reader into their own reality once more.
“I felt guilty around them for having a house and a family. They’d never had a choice and I’d chosen to be a criminal.” (This was only on the third page; I didn’t have a stake in the character yet, and didn’t want this kind of direction.)
“Fighting made me feel the same way driving fast did – free.” (I would rather have imagined the last word, eased into the story with less direction.)
And, yet, the character development is consistent so that, by the end of the story, there have been enough interactions to build an understanding that supports these statements.
Even so, there is an absolutely stunning image of the narrator’s having collected bees in a jar, dead bees from the gutter, when he was a boy.
“I carried them home, cupping them in my hand so their wings wouldn’t be damaged, and put them in a jar. I loved to open the jar and breathe in the scent of their bodies, which even in death smelled like honey.”
And, yet, the pacing in “Lula May’s Love Stories” is impressive, arranged so that the reader only gains vital pieces of information as the narrator is prepared to confront them (and some of that is best denied for a good while).
Not all of the images will work for every reader either (I stumbled on “sheer cliffs the colour of a dusty brown dog”), but some will resonate with acuity. A “waist as trim as a paintbrush” eyes that “darted like birds in the trees”: these similes are simple but striking.
And sometimes an observation is so powerful that it requires re-reading.
Like, this one: “She sells to tourists, but avoids getting to know them; they remind her of sheep that graze in a meadow until the grass is all eaten up.”
And, this: “Clouds came like a gift, wrapping sheets of coolness around the searing sun.”
Love stories twist and sad stories end with a breath (in which the reader could inject hope): Floating Like the Dead is a worthwhile debut collection.