The Frangipani Hotel,
by Violet Kupersmith
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Caught between two worlds. This statement could apply equally to the living characters in this collection of short stories, and the ghosts that haunt them. The types of ghosts vary between stories and even within, from the literal sense, to the metaphoric sense of past history haunting the present, or a distant homeland or heritage haunting new life in America. United by shadows of Vietnam, its culture, and these themes of haunting and straddling worlds, Kupersmith’s debut is quite impressive.
Though featuring ghosts, these stories fit into a genre category of fantasy more than horror, except in a very classical sense. None of the stories are particularly scary, though they are spiced with an atmosphere, or at times an ambiguity that could be considered disturbing. Although being grounded in Vietnamese culture and traditional ghost stories, these tales remind me greatly both in content and style of the classic ghost stories by M.R. James, a type of Vietnamese gothic if one can imagine that. Beyond genre, they can quite easily be classified as literary, with a rich, descriptive style of sentences that sing atmospheric melodies in the reader’s ear to firmly establish the mood of the collection, taking the setting beyond exotic to eerie.
The stories that stand out strongest in my mind a week or so after reading the collection are three: the one giving its name to the title of the book, featuring a thirsty ghost haunting a family who runs a run-down hotel, one with a Vietnamese-American girl struggling with issues of self image and weight who is sent to her visit her grandmother back in the foreign homeland, and one where a man is tricked into transporting a very ill looking young man across the Vietnamese countryside, featuring an ominous warning. Each of these stories were powerfully brilliant, easily worth the ‘price of admission’ to the collection, with the latter story being the closest one to approach horror, where the ‘ghost’ actually appears quite unequivocally dangerous, more animal than human.
Kupersmith shows great talent here, and a lot of promise, but I wouldn’t categorize all of the stories here on the same level. While none were poor, several felt less magical or substantial. Moreover, the classic ghost story style employed by Kupersmith (so reminiscent to me of James) includes the format of setting up stories within stories. For instance several stories begin with some characters meeting and one prior to relate a ghostly yarn to the other(s) after something in their conversation brings this mysterious odd event from their past (or a past story they heard related) to mind. The weakest moments of the stories in this collection I felt came when Kupersmith devoted relatively large amounts of text to the characters in these conversations, and the events in their lives that eventually ends up leading to the revelation of the actual ghost story. At best the meta-connections between ‘story’ and ‘story within story’ become clear and revelatory. Frequently though this wasn’t clear to me and I finished the story wishing a fair bit of it had ended up cut out during editing.
As a collection of literary short fiction with fantastic and cultural spins, “The Frangipani Hotel: Stories” is not astounding, but it is really good and well-worth reading for anyone who likes short stories, and particularly to those who have some kind of ties to Vietnam or an affection for classic-style ghost stories. Beyond Vietnam, many of the stories also take place in Houston. So that, coupled with Kupersmith’s background from the Philly area, certainly led to a strong geographic affinity for me with her, despite my knowing little of Vietnam. Even with no connection to the material here, however, this collection is noteworthy, if just simply for an introduction to an exciting talent whose writing it bears keeping eyes upon.