This Whiting Award-winning author has a very bright future.



Set mostly in Hong Kong, seven stories portray dislocated lives: an impressive debut from an admirably protean storyteller.

White American, black American, Hong Kong native, mainland refugee: Row’s viewpoint characters are a mixed bunch, but all are effortlessly convincing. Hong Kong, with its colonial past and uncertain present, is an apt metaphor for dislocation. The reasons for these deracinated lives may be personal (Alice, a high-school student in “The Secrets of Bats,” is disoriented after her mother’s suicide) or personal and geographic: Lewis and Melinda, an American couple, are having unexpected career problems (“For You”) in what would be just another marriage-on-the rocks story without the twist of Lewis’s seeking help through Zen in a Buddhist monastery. Zen reappears in “Revolutions,” where Ana, a Polish convert, offers solace to Curtis, a physically and spiritually damaged American painter, through the zigzags are not always clear—possibly stories are the wrong vehicle for Zen’s slippery riddles. Row burrows more successfully into the vagaries of relationships in his title story: Harvey, a fifth-generation Hong Kong resident, woos but fails to win a fiercely proud mainland girl. The standout, though, is Row’s most audacious story, “American Girl.” Chen is blind, an aging masseur in Kowloon. He was a child during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards raped his mother, killed his father, and blinded him, but now a relentless American anthropologist, Jill Marcus, who studies trauma survivors, forces him to relive the past. “Ghost woman,” Chen calls her, the word for foreigner and ghost being the same in Chinese. But the put-down doesn’t bother Wallace, the worldly African-American lawyer in “The Ferry,” a taut tale of race and office politics. The seventh story, “Heaven Lake,” is remarkable for its account of a New York mugging that builds in tension as the mugger turns victim. Row handles gritty suspense quite as well as he does the problems of lovers.

This Whiting Award-winning author has a very bright future.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-385-33789-2

Page Count: 190

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2004

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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