The Frangipani Hotel: Fiction
Based on Vietnamese folktales, Violet Kupersmith's short stories, collected in her debut, THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL, are chilling and lovely. Mixing the traditional with modern literary elements to great success, these stories are tales of ghosts intent on company or revenge, as well as tales of living people exploring issues of identity and place.
In "Guests," a young American whose father is from Vietnam moves there to work in the American consulate, spending her days with women asserting that their babies should have American citizenship. The blond and beautiful Mia lives with her boyfriend Charlie, also blond, beautiful and American. Her days are filled with tedious work and anxiety, producing attempts to physically and culturally navigate in her adopted home, while her nights are spent getting drunk with other Westerners and worrying about Charlie's numerous ex-girlfriends.
"THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL is an immensely readable collection that is entertaining, thoughtful, spooky, and keenly critical of politics, history and culture."
But an encounter with one particular Vietnamese woman, Strawberry, and a tryst with Tuan, a Vietnamese man, force Mia to reconsider staying in Vietnam. When she goes, she leaves behind Charlie and most of her belongings but takes with her something more valuable and potentially problematic. Mia and Charlie are guests in the foreign land, but they mirror all the Vietnamese, including Mia's father, who find themselves in America. The babies in the story, too, are guests --- guests of the mother's body who are born to bridge two cultures, perhaps never at home in either.
All the stories share a sense of tension and unease, and most of them have a supernatural component as well. In “The Boat Story,” an enigmatic spirit rises from the water during a storm; the story is the answer given to a disbelieving American granddaughter when she asks her grandmother to tell her how she escaped Vietnam. The titular Frangipani Hotel is haunted by a beautiful but dangerous ghost who is hungry and demanding. A truck driver encounters a strange and dangerous patient who needs a ride home in “Little Brother,” and a young girl in Houston meets a magical were-snake outside the grocery store where she works. In both “Skin and Bones” and “The Red Veil,” two sisters must face family ghosts.
Kupersmith has a knack for blending the fantastically folkloric with a contemporary examination of culture and self, displacement and immigration, war and memory. The Vietnam War looms large here --- a character in and of itself that destroyed the environment, damaged bodies and tore families apart. The tensions between Vietnam and America, both physically and culturally, and the consequences of the war underpin most of the stories here, even as characters answer the door to the dead and pass their stories along to the next generation. Some are haunted by the memories of Vietnam, while others are drawn back to the place, real or imagined.
THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL is an immensely readable collection that is entertaining, thoughtful, spooky, and keenly critical of politics, history and culture. Kupersmith has combined traditional storytelling with a post-modern sense of anxiety and darkness, and the result is captivating.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 2, 2014