An original and delightfully off-kilter debut collection about searching for a sense of belonging.
Set mostly in Chinese American communities in California, some of Au's stories explore the cost of immigration and its toll on families. In "The Richmond," for example, Mei laments being singled out by the cafeteria lady, who speaks differently to her than to her white classmates. She can't understand why her parents love their neighborhood, why her mother counsels her to accept that someone will always "label us as immigrants as if that were a bad thing." But just 11, Mei also doesn't yet understand the famine and genocide her parents fled, the haunting image of "Mama's childhood friend on her knees...as a soldier towered over her." Elsewhere, Au's characters find themselves adrift because of age ("This Is Me"); ambition ("Little Harlot"); or sexual orientation ("Louise"). In the devastating "Spider Love Song," Sophie is emotionally lost after her parents vanish. She carries on living with her grandmother, cooking as her mother taught her, still wearing an increasingly smelly elephant costume that she donned the day her parents disappeared. "We are waiting," Sophie tells a woman who tries to lure her away, a sign of strength rather than weakness. Au writes with keen understanding of children's need to see the good in their flawed parents; many stories turn on moments of children applying the balm of their imaginations to painful situations. In "Wearing My Skin," when Shelly inadvertently learns that her father didn't die, that he abandoned them, she doesn't lash out at her mother for lying. Instead, she imagines making a giant collage of her parents where they "stand next to each other...holding up each other's glossy dime-store dreams."
Only a writer who knows how closely bound are heartbreak and resilience could write stories as emotionally stirring as these.