The Boat – Nam Le

Review by Gabriel

The Boat by Nam Le

Winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Award, the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and the subject of numerous glowing reviews, The Boat is definitely one of the Australian books of the year.  Its critical success is doubly extraordinary for being the debut work of a young author, Nam Le, and a short story anthology, a medium that is typically overshadowed by novels in awards season.  Are all the stories in The Boat perfect?  No.  Is it a damn promising start from a young writer?  Definitely.

Le’s stories are consistently readable and compelling.  He writes clearly and evocatively, although I’m not sure that I could differentiate his style from many other modern authors.  Perhaps he will develop a more distinctive voice in time.

He demonstrates laudable confidence and ambition in tackling a breath of cultures and experiences.  He has a good understanding of the cultures he depicts, but the stories in Western or Vietnamese settings seem more authentic, not surprising considering the author’s heritage.

His characters are often faced with circumstances that reveal the fundamentals of their lives.  They are distinct and fully conceived, though not always sympathetic or believable.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate the diversity of subject and, to be honest, quality, is to look at each of the seven stories.

Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice

The opening story of the anthology is by far the best, setting a standard that the other stories frankly fail to live up to.  The details of the narrator’s life seem to match closely with the author’s own biographical details, and most readers will probably assume that this story is an exploration of Le’s relationship with his own father.  Regardless of its factual basis, it is raw, honest and moving.  It communicates the weight of the past, the gulf between parents and their children, and the impossibility of expressing the complexity of familial relationships.  It is also masterfully structured with the perfect amount of ambiguity.


The story of a child assassin in the slums of Colombia.  In Cartagena, Le attempts to communicate the brutalisation of children by their environment.  He does this by contrasting his characters childish emotions with the shocking violence of their daily lives.  Ultimately, it falls flat.  His protagonist is a blend of naivety and ruthlessness that comes across as unconvincing.  Having seen the excellent movie City of God, which deals with a similar subject in Brazil, Cartagena also struck me as cliché.

Meeting Elise

Another of the stronger works in the collection.  An aging New York artist attempts to reconcile with the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was a baby.  Le manages to make the protagonist variously repellent and sympathetic.  A compelling portrait of a flawed and authentic character.

 Halflead Bay

Reminded me of a Tim Winton novel.  Set in a small beach side community, a teenage boy struggles with his mother’s illness, and courts trouble in the form of a local girl.  I enjoyed the family relationships, but found the rest of the drama overdone.


I appreciated Hiroshima for its unconventional structure, which perfectly captures the confusion of the child protagonist.  In war time Japan, Mayako tries to suppress her loneliness for her family with nationalist propaganda.  The story is made even more poignant by the fact that her yearning is destined to be left tragically unfulfilled.

 Tehran Calling

Flat out didn’t like this.  An American woman whines about a break-up while her friend struggles for women’s rights against the brutal Iranian regime.  Could anyone be as ignorant and self-absorbed as the protagonist of this story?  If you can believe it, she does something even worse at the end.  Is it a comment on sheltered Western attitudes?  If so, it didn’t make for an enjoyable read.

 The Boat

It’s an interesting tactic putting the titular story at the end.  I was really looking forward to this, as I was expecting it to be about the wonderfully complex father from the first story, and his escape as a refugee from Vietnam.  I was a little bit let down, then, when I found that it focused on a 16 year old girl.  I was even more let down by the slow start, bland character and predictable conclusion.  While the subject pretty much guaranteed a suspenseful story, and there were glimpses of brilliance, it failed to reach the heights I hoping for.  Still, it’s something of an Important Story at the moment, and will hopefully inspire some people to imagine the circumstances faced by modern boat people.

Overall, I have probably been overly critical of this collection.  While it has its flaws, it is both enjoyable and effecting.  Furthermore, it is it is evident that the author is challenging himself to create something unique with each story.  This ambition guarantees that great things can be expected of Le, and I’ll be following his work with interest.


5 Responses to The Boat – Nam Le

  1. […] book that my mistake was pointed out to me.  Last night, chatting after book club (we discussed The Boat), one of my mates told me that Jake was impotent due to an accident during World War I.  At first, […]

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  3. chasing bawa says:

    I thought The Boat was an impressive debut, but like you I think Tehran calling was also my least favourite. Have you read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories? I haven’t yet, but I hear she is the best of the current crop. I like what you say about writers finding a ‘distinctive voice’ especially those coming out of American MFA programmes. Their prose is polished, almost perfect, but a little samey. It would be interesting to see how they develop.

    • Gabriel says:

      No, I haven’t read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. Has she had an anthology published, or been published in Australia? While I haven’t read any other writers that have come from an American writers programmes that I know of, I’m sceptical of the idea of a systematic method of teaching creative writing. Thanks for your comments.

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