With her first sentences, Yasuko Thanh displays creative courage. The opening story of this collection takes us to a B.C. prison in 1948, and the mind of a murderer just a day away from execution by hanging. Alone in his final holding cell, Donny withdraws into abject rumination. He recalls childhood moments: baby birds in the porch eaves; his parents singing beside him in church. Seen in the mind of a man who has kicked someone to death, the images are humanizing. Thanh generates sympathy for a man facing state-sanctioned brutality, though she might have better trusted readers’ intuitions. When Donny observes, “The deepest injuries are those we inflict on our loved ones,” it’s only a truism for what already lives more subtly in Thanh’s subtext. The story’s purposeful, heartfelt stance against state killing of killers is ultimately its literary liability. We agree easily with the call for mercy, but the emotional punch never quite comes.
Floating Like the Dead is the Journey Prize-winning story sharing the book’s title. We’re presented with Chinese lepers banished a century ago by health bureaucrats to an isolated B.C. island. Here Thanh dispenses with messaging and cuts to the truer heart of the matter: the bounce between despair and each tiny glimmer of hope inside Ah Sing, one of three survivors of this limbo of imprisonment and neglect. Deft symbols (a kite, a pocket watch, a hat), a simple yet powerful story arc and keenly leprous visuals make the tale sharply present, finally haunting.
Hunting in Spanish shifts from edgy sensuality to the trenches of erotic danger. Thanh’s young Canadian traveller immersed in a steamy relationship with a sinewy Mexican musician comes with the buoyancy and immediacy of lived experience. Our risk-taker evolves from intrepid tourist to a willing cog in the opium market, until her knack for meeting good people comes to a shocking end. Thanh’s purpose is not moral or even cautionary. The piece simply lives.
The ambitious Helen and Frank offers six decades of family life in a voice of benign omniscience. There are dollops off-the-rack sentiment: “Even after they’d been married sixty years they still got dressed up and went to dances at the legion. They danced the foxtrot.” “He knew he wanted to spend his life with her.” “Life … is a fleeting miracle.” The story is emotionally earnest but oddly unconsidered. If beloved octogenarian parents disappear mysteriously from their house, leaving food still on the table, do their children and in-laws fret for five days without once raising the idea of a call to police?
Thanh has a descriptive flair that often vaults beyond the visual: “I heard a kind of wavy ‘Oooooh’ go up from the crowd … from the tops of their heads and then back down again to the pavement.” Her Mexican and tropical settings, especially, engage the full range of the senses. You feel the slick of sweat and smell the masala of hot rain and sweetness and rot. Occasionally her word power can loft to the exquisite. A young wife says of her unfaithful husband, “I continued to throw myself at him, like beads from a broken necklace.”
Her Vietnamese Boyfriend is a standout, a fully formed world set on a German dairy farm in the 1960s. A young domestic worker is just beginning to negotiate the quirks of a father and unruly kids when she gets a surprise visit from her Asian boyfriend on a break from studying in Paris. Diverse, sharply drawn characters and a loose yet integrating story arc impel the tale toward an aptly open-ended conclusion.
Thanh’s large talent is so evident that it’s dispiriting to watch her stumbling. It’s as if just a little more attention in final drafts could have made this uneven book a truly stunning debut. Hustler, otherwise an involving story of drug-fuelled marital strife in a Honduran backwater, needlessly blunts its edge with bumpy point-of-view shifts and gratuitous forays into viewpoints of minor characters.
The closing entry visits a middle-aged gay couple in the final months of one partner’s terminal illness. For eight months, doctors have prescribed no drugs beyond morphine for Raymond, saying nothing more can be done. His partner and his mother are in states of grief and denial. Nowhere in the 30-page tale does Thanh offer a reliable indication of what the medical issue is. There is a passing mention of “viral hallucination.”
Readers will, of course, think AIDS. This is 1998 in Vancouver, so it's a huge stretch that for eight months Raymond's doctors deny him the available HIV “cocktail” drugs that would help keep infections and cancers at bay. Maybe Raymond doesn’t have AIDS. We're left guessing. Why we are presented with a dying gay man and a mother strangely distant from his suffering, without knowing the factors at stake, is a mystery.