Review: Debut collection is a tough, gorgeous look at why we behave badly
A man is about to marry but can’t stop thinking about an email from Yi. They met at a wedding months earlier, or was it years? They trade notes and, growing excited, the man thinks: Maybe I should cancel the wedding and meet this strange woman in Hong Kong?
In another piece, a woman who cleaned hotel rooms is finally a guest in one, but she can’t sleep — the light catches the corner of a crystal chandelier and it makes her wonder: Perhaps while her husband sleeps she should take a piece? In a third story, a villager joins her friend at a factory job, and they move in together, but soon they’re hosting gambling parties — until the friend suggests an older way to make money.
Stories of unintended consequences, people behaving badly, some with cruelty and hatred, others with tough love or curious ways to test the bonds that bind us, come together in a gripping new collection, “Last of Her Name.”
Writer and oral historian Mimi Lok roams a hazy series of settings: Hong Kong and China and California. Cramped apartments and chauffeured luxury cars. Sleek new kitchens and the deep recesses of a suburban closet. The book reflects the work of a young writer with the artistry and training to write beautifully. Lok also seems to have the worldly knowledge and heart to write about people (on a variety of margins), and she makes subtle but surprising arguments about why their stories matter.
One of the most ambitious stories, “Last of Her Name,” is about the trauma of war and exile and the ugly possibility that a woman abandoned her brother. The piece toggles from 1941 in Hong Kong to 1970 and 1983 in London. In the most recent period, the woman faces her daughter’s predator — having survived so much, the sweet but brutal collision of generations and big wars and small battles — and finds herself ready for a new test. “Names don’t really matter,” she muses. “What good is preservation, after all? Only survival matters.”
Preservation isn’t just a matter of economics, but there’s plenty of that. For example, a chilling story, “I Have Never Put My Hope in Any Other but Thee,” introduces a trophy wife and her stepdaughter. Through twists and surprises, the piece ends up casting as much doubt on the spoiled stepdaughter as it does on a woman who berates the pair’s driver.
These sophisticated and worldly stories are about how close you can come to not wanting to be married, as in the email story about a man named Dave. Or how close you can come to not wanting to be yourself and not knowing of a better alternative, as in the stepdaughter’s tale. But above all, nearly every piece seems to grapple convincingly with the matter of how we live and why and how easily it could (and maybe should) be different.
A story set in California concerns a prodigal son, Nelson, who disappears, first for a few months, then a year, then a half decade. Back in town, he challenges the desperate longing of his sister, and at a beach bonfire she considers anew the ache her parents still feel. What happens is not what you’d expect, or what anyone exactly hoped for. (Relatedly: It is a testament to Lok’s cunning and control that the email story, “The Wrong Dave,” plays with settling the question of whether Yi has written the wrong man.)
Far away, right here at home, the “wrong” man: Don’t imagine these are lurid, easy stories, made electric or remote by locale. Case in point is the last story, which might be the most compelling of all. Called “The Woman in the Closet,” it’s about just that: A kindly grandma in a crowded city has become a burden to her son and a tired and capricious daughter-in-law, so she resolves to move away and try out a few tent cities. When she is pushed out of yet another encampment, she finds herself in front of a house whose owner isn’t often home. Why not, having ascertained the lonely man’s quiet ways, make her way inside? The surprising result of her sharing a house, undetected, by an IT professional, and then the way he reacts upon her discovery, says as much about life on a faraway island like Hong Kong, where the story is set, as it does about how we view and treat the un-housed in Los Angeles.
These stories are tough, gorgeous and humane. They feel universal and also deeply specific. I loved the brash intelligence, the way this debut collection can be fun, funny and incredibly serious. How many versions of each one of us are there? One hopes Lok will have time to find more.
Kaya Press, $16.95, 221 pages
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
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