In Kupersmith’s debut collection, old men shape-shift into serpents, ghostly women lap at bath water, mute twins frighten their own father, a deathly ill man hungers to hear his driver’s story, and all have a price to pay.
The ghosts of Vietnam haunt the pages of this collection, and as characters tell each other tales, the act of storytelling becomes dangerous, for the past feeds upon the present. As the grandmother in “Boat Story” tells of a strange encounter during a storm, she questions whether one can ever escape the past, because escaping the storm must surely have come at a price. The best of these short stories, such as “Little Brother” and “The Red Veil,” are indeed disturbing. Set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, “Reception” deftly mixes humor with horror. The narrator, Phi, runs the desk because his English is fairly good. Once owned by Phi’s father and two uncles, the hotel now belongs only to his uncle Mr. Henry; Phi’s father committed suicide a few years after Phi’s other uncle drowned under mysterious circumstances. With his crazy ideas for boosting business (including a weird plastic fountain and mustard-yellow uniforms), Mr. Henry both exasperates and amuses his nephew. One day, however, Phi discovers a strange woman living in an officially unoccupied room. She exacts promises that set in motion a catastrophic collision between present and past, man and woman, America and Vietnam. Other tales are less successful, omitting links that would explain startling metamorphoses. In “Skin and Bones,” for example, an overweight girl is sent to visit her grandmother. She knows full well it’s really fat camp, and she’s willing to tell her story to a masked woman in exchange for delicious sandwiches. Her story may come at a cost, but Kupersmith’s tale leaves a lot of loose ends dangling.
At her best, Kupersmith writes lyrically haunting tales; she’s a writer to watch.