The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel,
by Violet Kupersmith
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

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.

Five Stars out of Five

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh

The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh
Publisher: Spiegl & Grau
320 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

McHugh’s debut novel is an impressive thriller covering a coming-of-age crisis for Lucy, a seventeen year old growing up in a close knit rural town of the Ozarks, and the tragic history of her mother Lila, who mysteriously disappeared while Lucy was still a baby. When a classmate and minor friend goes missing and subsequently turns up dead, Lucy begins to investigate the crime, drawing her to truths about her town and family that have lied hidden, barely beneath the surface, and revelations about her mother’s life and disappearance.

The novel is told in two parts, the first alternating chapters between the points of view of Lucy and flash-backs in the view of her mother, Lila. Readers are thereby introduced to the cast of characters, many spanning across both time periods, until the second part when the point of view cast is expanded to the secondary characters of each period. The expansion serves to relate plot points out of the protagonists experiences, but also helps to lend greater complexity and understanding to some of the secondary characters who previously come across as largely one-dimensional and utterly unsympathetic. While the expansion of view in the second part was a bit surprising, the story would have had trouble succeeding by keeping things limited to Lucy and Lila.

“The Weight of Blood” is only nominally a mystery. The ‘bad guys’ of the novel are clear rather early on, and the only mysteries lie in the precise details of the crimes and the precise fate of Lila. Instead of mystery, the lure of this novel rests with its characters and setting, and the themes woven into them. Physically and spiritually similar, Lila and Lucy differ dramatically in their pasts and ‘present’ conditions. Raised in foster care and disfunction, driftless and exploited, Lila elicits the reader’s sympathy with her intelligence, heart, and strength to find a settled life of happiness amid the distrust and hostility of rural America. Lucy, in contrast, has been doted upon, raised under the close love and support of her family and neighbors, relatively ignorant of the ways of the world, but with a desire to explore. Lucy is largely sheltered, and the novel in a large part is about the opening up of her world as she reaches adulthood. Opening it up to the reality of boys and sex and opening it up to the realization that her loving town and family are not all perfect and good, but that terrible things go on which people she loves and respects have either perpetrated, or allowed happen while turning a blind eye.

The revelation that her family has dark secrets brings up the other major theme of the novel, distinct from the ‘coming-of-age’ aspects. And the novel is perfectly named for this other theme, the weight of blood. Once Lucy has come to knowledge of adulthood and her innocent, naive views of her family and town are shattered, she then most decide what to do about these secrets her family holds. Not only does Lucy have to deal with this issue, but so does her father, and by extension the entire ‘family’ of this small Ozark town. The ties between blood relations, the degrees to which we as humans are willing to forgive, to look past, or to ignore faults and evils in our kin is at the heart of what McHugh is writing here. In a small town where everyone knows each other’s business, how can horrible, evil crime occur without people knowing about it? Because they lie to themselves, they ignore it, they look away, they explain it away; that is far easier than having to turn on your kin, on someone you love, and who has been a vital support throughout your own life. These human social complexities in the background of the plot in this novel are what make it truly special.

The final piece of McHugh’s writing that makes “The Weight of Blood” a special book is her insight and appreciation for the Ozark setting. The dialogue in the novel is okay, not stellar, and at times even sounds as if spoken by Captain Exposition. But the descriptions are lovely, with McHugh vividly painting the settings so that it is almost a character unto itself controlling the lives of those that populate it. Set beside other chapters relating inhumanity and brutality, the beauty of the Ozarks makes a nice contrast in the novel.

Four Stars out of Five