The boat

by Nam Le

Paper Book, 2008





New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.


Stories that take us from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran; from New York City to Iowa; from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea-- while taking us to the heart of what is means to be human.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Pummzie
This little collection of gems has been keeping me from other reading projects over the last month. Each of Nam Le's stories drew me in and left me sated and lost in thought as well as more than a little envious of the talent displayed in this debut collection.

Like the best short stories, these are subtle, nuanced tales, each very different in terms of setting and place and voice and with a different pain to dissect. Nam Le has a beautiful turn of phrase and he absolutely puts you in the moment with all your senses- you think that clouds have been described every which way they can be until you find "clouds streaks [that] were blue-bruised against the sky the colour of skin".

His eye for the telling detail is superb and he is clearly flexing his muscles in these stories, experimenting, trying to work out his boundaries. Not every story is brilliant but some of them are lyrical, tragic, painful, unforgettable.

I will certainly be looking out for more from Nam Le - I fear he will only get better.
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LibraryThing member RobinDawson
This is a stunning collection of short stories which travels across diverse continents, age groups and issues. Their breadth is amazing, yet each scene is described with the finest detail. You would swear that Nam Le had lived in Iran, Columbia and Tasmania – you can almost smell the fishing jetty in Halflead Bay, the street markets in Tehran, and the stench below deck on the refugee boat. The human stories are told with passion and poignancy. I doubt I will ever forget the last story – The Boat. What a gifted writer he is.… (more)
LibraryThing member heathereb
Brilliant short stories - all so different. Nam Le is able to speak realistically in so many different voices, wholly convincingly. Can't wait to read something else by him
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
A very well written collection of short stories. For the audio version, each story was read by someone with a voice matching the main protagonist. It highlighted how Le was able to adopt the voice of people from multiple nations, genders, and ages with remarkable skill. The stories are very dark and weave a common thread which we all share, death. Unique collection.… (more)
LibraryThing member mobilepen
Great stories that transport the reader to diverse locations around the world. Excellent character work in this debut set of short stories, which demonstrates the author's pronounced talent at putting the reader in the shoes of his subjects.
LibraryThing member Johnny1978
The man can write: Name Le has a credible and sympathetic voice. This collection of short stories ranges from the tale of a Tasmanian grommet in a coastal backwater confronting his worst fears, to an American lawyer travelling to Tehran with a broken heart to join a revolution. Le's characters are fragile and deeply flawed - scarred people who surprise the reader with their perserverance when hope is gone.… (more)
LibraryThing member LiteraryFeline
I tend to prefer short stories that delve into the hearts and minds of the characters and that is exactly what Nam Le has done with his collection of stories in The Boat (Knopf, 2008 - Fiction; 272 pgs). I find his writing beautiful at times, while at others somewhat harsh harsh. The stories in the collection are all rather melancholy, the characters flawed and real. My favorite of the stories included the title story, "The Boat," about a mother and child who befriend a young woman traveling on her own. They are escaping Vietnam, hoping for a better and safer life. It is a heart wrenching story that continues to stay with me months after I read it. My other favorite was "Cartagena" about a 14 year old Colombian boy, a hitman, who has had to grow up all too fast. He goes into hiding after refusing to kill his most recent target. I found myself holding my breath near the end, knowing what was to come but wishing it would end differently. I came to really care for the 14 year old protagonist.… (more)
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Sometimes I read books from the New York Times' Notable Book list and feel baffled that they were there. Happily, this was not the case with Nam Le's debut collection of stories, which carries readers from Iowa to Colombia, Teheran, Ireland, Vietnam, and beyond. What's impressive about this book is the way that it explores far-flung places without exoticizing them. Though rooted in unique cultural and economic climates, the characters are human, and the dilemmas they face are relatable. The final story, "The Boat," describes a brutal escape from Vietnam to Malaysia, but it focuses on the main character's struggle to understand her father in the wake of a tragedy, a theme that is echoed and inverted in the story of an aging New Yorker's attempt to reconnect with his daughter after his own terminal cancer diagnosis earlier in the book. This theme of mental and physical dislocation resonates throughout each of the stories as a teenage British soccer player grasps for a connection to his dying mother, a young Colombian assassin reaches out to an old friend, and a newly-single American woman visits an activist friend in Teheran. A few stories struck false notes. "Hiroshima," about a young evacuee in World War II Japan, was written as a stream of consciousness that was difficult to understand but didn't contribute much to the story. "Cartagena," the assassin story I mentioned earlier, is the one story in the book whose grit felt contrived. However, these are two of the shorter pieces in the book, and they did not diminish the collection as a whole. These are exactly the kind of stories that I like best: they contain real characters, explore interesting places, and say important things without shoving them in your face. Best of all, each has a beautiful, indefinite ending that allow us to feel a small hint of resolution but leave room for our own imaginations and interpretations. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member LadyHax
Often referred to as a collection of short stories, I believe that Nam Le's The Boat begs to be read as a novel of sorts, seemingly disjointed but ultimately underpinned by some unifying factor that...I admit I am yet to uncover.

One theory I have about this unifying factor is found in the challenge Le issues in the first section, "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", when he reflects sardonically upon the category of ethnic literature. What do we want from Le's writing when we read him? Do we want what this first story ostensibly offers - the story of the difficult relationship between a Vietnamese father and son where this Vietnameseness may be the issue or cause of tension? Do we crave his authentic ethnic voice? By jumping from this to the voice of a young South American gang member, to an ageing New York artist, to an rural Australian teenager, to a heartbroken American woman and, finally, to a refugee boat Le issues a challenge to us as readers - what do we think is authentic, especially now, and why do we desire it?

Le's writing is beautiful and frequently heartbreaking. He captures each character, their voice and their place so completely that I felt pleasantly jarred as I moved between each section. Le is undoubtedly a welcome new voice in Australian literature but his work speaks to us all.
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LibraryThing member bruceandceals
In a way it is unfortunate that the first tale in the collection is one of the most powerful and beautifully written short stories I have read in a long time. The rest of the collection suffers slightly in comparison to this masterpiece.

At the heart of each story is a sense of loss, each tale in the collection will leave your heart a little more broken, grieving for the the characters whose liveas are laid bare to you.

Well crafted and immersive tales with a strong narrative storyline. They are full of beauty, the psychology of human relationships, humour, loss and yet somehow so much more.
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LibraryThing member Faradaydon
Breathtakingly brilliant
LibraryThing member edgeworth
It’s well-known in the writing and publishing industry that the reading public is far more interested in buying novels than short story collections. When I worked in a bookstore in 2011, Nam Le’s The Boat was the only story anthology – not the only Australian story anthology, the only story anthology full stop – that I recall ever selling any copies of whatsoever. And it was three years old at the time! It’s a sad piece of anecdotal evidence for the popularity of the short story, but a very nice one for Nam Le.

The Boat won a raft of awards and is plastered with praise across front and back covers, coming from sources as lofty as Junot Diaz, Peter Carey, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post. And Le deserves it – his writing is instantly, irrefutably excellent, especially for somebody so young (he was 29 when The Boat was published, and most of the stories are from earlier than that.) Le has also received praise for the wide-ranging scope of his fiction, featuring stories ranging from a Colombian assassin to a New York art dealer to an American woman in Tehran. Those stories are bookended in The Boat by two which are clearly drawn from real life; “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” in which a young Vietnamese-Australian writer hosts his father while at a writing workshop in Iowa, and “The Boat,” in which a boatload of Vietnamese refugees flee the country after the fall of Saigon, just as Le’s own parents did in the late 1970s, with Le himself a one-year-old baby.

I was prepared to love Le for the fact that he didn’t simply write what he knows, but it’s ironic that “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” clearly the book’s most autobiographical story, is also its best. From there it leaps straight into “Cartagena,” a story about a child assassin in Colombia, and while it feels authentic enough – laced with Latin slang and capturing what I imagine to be the filth and corruption and hopelessness of a Colombian metropolis – it felt somehow obvious; like writing a Mongolian story about a horse nomad or an Australian story about a jackaroo. Crime and corruption is all foreigners know about what is probably a large and complex nation, and crime and corruption is what Le gives us. Stereotype is too strong a word, because Le brings the same skill to “Cartagena” as he does to all his other stories; I believed in the characters, and the situation, and their reactions to it, but I could never shake the feeling that while I, as an Australian, found it to be believable, a Colombian would instantly recognise it as the work of an outsider.

“Cartagena” is thankfully the worst example of that, because for the rest of the book Le is on firmer ground; “Meeting Elise” is set in New York; “Halfhead Bay” is a Wintonesque high school story in an Australian fishing town (which presents its own problems, but never mind); “Hiroshima” is fairly short and told from a child’s perspective in any case; and “Tehran Calling” is set in Iran but features an American protagonist.

These are all good stories; perhaps not as great as the first one, but all worth reading. And in any case, I’d rather read an author who attempts to write about other places and cultures than someone like, well, Tim Winton, who is undoubtedly a brilliant author but ends up writing variations on a theme. Nam Le is well on the way to carving out a future for himself in the Australian literary pantheon alongside greats such as Winton and Carey and Keneally. It pleases me as a reader – partly because it can grow so tiresome, as a 20-something, to spend so long working your way through the 20th century canon – to identify a writer destined for great things, whom I can read from the very beginning of his career and watch develop. I can only imagine what Nam Le’s bibliography will look like when he and I are both in our 60s.

(Although having said that, The Boat was published five and a half years ago and he’s done nothing since then and there are no hints of anything in the works, so who knows?)
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LibraryThing member ilovejfranzen
I'm not usually a fan of short stories as I find they're often not long enough to really get a feel for the characters, but Nam Le's stories are a standout exception. I found it amazing that one author could draw such disparate authentic portraits. How does he do it?
I read the final story 'The Boat' against the backdrop of the polarised and xenophobic debate on asylum seekers in Australia and I wished more people would read this story.… (more)
LibraryThing member astrologerjenny
I have mixed feelings about this collection of short stories. Some of them I liked very much, while others not particularly. Nam Le is an original writer, and he is ambitious in his attempt to write from all different genders, ages and cultural backgrounds. But he reaches a little too far for drama at times, and ends up with something approaching melodrama. Many of his stories are about proving oneself, proving one is tough rather than vulnerable, and maybe this is why they seem a bit hollow at times. I think he will eventually write his way to a truer and more confident vision of the world.… (more)
LibraryThing member seekingflight
A collection of short stories, vividly told and compelling, that add up to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts – a commentary on the human condition, the many nuances of our relationships with one another, and the global, multi-cultural world in which we live.

The first story - Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice - was a delightfully rich and understated picture of a family who fled to Australia from Vietnam as boat-people; about the sacrifices parents make for their children and the pain parents and children cause each other; and about the stories we tell, why we tell them, and how they are received.

This was followed by stories about a young South American assassin; a father hoping to meet his famous daughter, a cello prodigy, after 17 years; a young Australian lad with an ill mother; a Japanese girl in wartime Hiroshima; an American lawyer visiting a friend in Tehran; and a Vietnamese girl on a boat fleeing Vietnam.

I really enjoyed the vivid and distinct narrative voices, and the rich pictures and lingering sadness evoked by each of these stories.
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LibraryThing member crashmyparty
An interesting collection of stories. Still not quite sure whether I like it or not.
LibraryThing member oldblack
All the professional book people love this book, but I didn't see much merit in it at all. I couldn't read it all, but just managed the first three stories. It seems only "big" and "important" people are worth writing about to Nam Le. Give it a miss if you want reality (and I'm sure the stuff supposedly describing his own past is not really anywhere near reality either)… (more)
LibraryThing member LynleyS
I'm impressed at the range of characters portrayed in these stories. My favourite, though, is the autobiographical one at the beginning.
LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
At the risk of sounding boring: It’s very clever what Le is doing here. First, he presents ethnicity and authenticity as important factors to him as a writer, in a story about writing a story about his father’s childhood in Vietnam. Then he completely disarms this position by effortlessly adapting completely different ethnic backgrounds as springboards for other stories with an equally strong sense of authenticity. From New York to Australia, from Bogotá to Hiroshima, all these stories (to me, at least, not a native to any of the places depicted) feel grounded in a personal background. It’s a deception. It’s almost cheeky. But it works.

Although often just a little too meticulous for my personal taste (it’s not illegal in the state of Iowa to write a short story without flashbacks, is it?), Le also manages to find some very interesting twists to his rather basic situations, some extra elements raising the temperature, making them feel fresh: You’re about to get beat up by the nastiest boy at school for messing with his girl (not spectacular so far, huh?) while your mum is dying from MS, making you feel that your problems are not only scary, but sort of pathetic too (bit more interesting now, innit?) There is that little extra hmm factor in almost all of these stories, an angle I haven’t seen before. It’s not breathtaking, but solid and constantly interesting.
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