C&R Press, 2021
paperback (from the author, thank you!!)
Some time ago I stopped becoming active in book tours because of my own still-unread, Library of Congress-sized tbr pile, but for this author, whose books I've read before, I made an exception. Given that we're still in the midst of downstairs remodel hell where my day often lasts from 6:30 a.m. to like 7 pm, that's a big deal. Khanh Ha's work is well worth it -- his writing touches on human connections in the most horrific and challenging of times; here he has put together eleven short stories that, as the blurb notes, have to do with the Vietnam War in some fashion and the people involved who try to salvage "one's soul from living hells."
I'm particularly picky when reading a short story collection or anthology -- in my mind, the opening story should provide a guide to or at least whet the appetite for what will be coming next. No worries here: "Heartbreak Glass" is a great beginning. A young man who will soon be going into the army as a soldier in the Vietnam War befriends a lonely man he calls Uncle Chung, who, before he himself had gone to serve in the army fighting Americans, had been a foreman in a machine shop. Only thirty-one, Uncle Chung had lost all of his limbs and his sight as a result of the war, and now lives a somewhat marginal existence with his young wife, who is not as sympathetic and caring as one might imagine. The young man, who also brings him medicines from time to time, tries to absorb "the horror of the war" through Uncle Chung's stories of the battlefield, but there are other horrors Uncle Chung has had to face since his return home. As with the stories that follow this one, "Heartbreak Glass" makes for compelling reading, and offers a compassionate poignancy that crawls beneath the skin until the very last word.
A Mother's Tale and Other Stories explores very personalized and individual experiences of the war, especially the lasting effects of the conflict that has taken its toll not only on the soldiers and ordinary people of the time, but also on those left behind. The titular story, for example, finds a mother who has come to Vietnam to hopefully locate the remains of her son; the characters from this tale have recurring roles in other connected stories in this collection as well. In "The River of White Lilies" (one of my personal favorites), an American soldier comes to see the people of a small village as the very human beings that they are, and in more than one story, the story is related from the point of view of the dead, now ghosts who recall their memories. The blurb notes that this book is "rich with a dreamlike quality," the stories sharing a "common theme of love and loneliness, longing and compassion," and much more to the point, the author reveals how "beauty is discovered in the moments of brutality, and agony is felt in esctasy."
Alongside the visible physical damage, these stories also offer insight into the often-hidden psychic trauma that lingers after any war, and I will warn potential readers that in both areas the reading can be tough to get through on an emotional level from the outset. At the same time, the quality of the writing in these stories sort of helps to mitigate the sadness, making it so you can't help but want to go on from story to story, facing whatever may come your way. Very nicely done, a book I can certainly recommend.
As I mentioned, I read A Mother's Tale & Other Stories as part of a book tour; my many thanks to Teddy Rose who put the tour together and especially to the author. You can follow the tour schedule, read more about the author and even sign up for a chance to win a free copy of this book at the Virtual Author Book Tours website here.