What they all have in common is that each one portrays its characters in a crisis that reveals resources of courage and resilience even he or she was not aware of. All but one of the stories concern what is arguably the deepest, most complex and most poignant of human relationships: the bond between parent and child ... Of all these heartrending stories of pain and loss, the most moving and unforgettable in the collection is 'Halflead Bay' ... As Faulkner observed, voices like his not only record the human condition but also help us endure and prevail.
It reads as a manifesto of sorts, a way for the author to assert his right to roam outside his ethnicity, and to justify the rest of his collection, which neurotically avoids the 'Vietnamese thing,' taking the reader around the world in 80 days, with narrators of all ages and genders, before coming full circle in the title story — 40 pages of entirely unpostmodern realism about boat people suffering as they try to escape the new Communist state ... The Boat is transparently a product of the increasingly formalized milieu in which American writers train — a well-wrought collection that, in its acute self-consciousness, trails a telltale whiff of 'the industry' that is its initial concern, of the 'heap of fellowship and job applications' the fictional Le needs 'to draft and submit' when he’s interrupted by his father ... Le is starting to grapple with the subtleties of authenticity, but one comes away feeling that it’s not really his subject, that he has a future as a very different kind of writer.
...there is so much skill in these stories that it takes a second reading to realise just how many of Nam’s characters are, ultimately, caricatures. The Colombians are violent criminals; the Japanese wonder if they are the reincarnated spirits of dead pine trees; the Iranians talk about the Prophet Mohammed ... If The Boat is a manifesto – an insistence that the writer can get into the souls of people from unknown cultures – then it is a partial success. But the attempt is bold and worthwhile ... A laudable effort to leave what is known for the wide world beyond.
Nam Le writes through the characters, he lets them drive the plot and not vice versa, he shows and doesn't tell, he uses concrete images, he handles time-shifts with aplomb, and there are no spurious happy endings ... The descriptions are painfully vivid, and the account of a child's death is one of the most moving things I have read in a long while.
In these stories that leaves Vietnam or leaves out Vietnamese characters, the reader is convinced about the amount of research invested to give texture and (perhaps even) exacting realism of a specific cultural realm these stories try to occupy. The psychological depictions too, are convincing, because Le takes the reader into the intimate spaces of his characters ... Thus, through these ‘non-Vietnamese’ stories Le seals his faith in his father’s words through literary skill, by showing him how much a scholar he is, of being able to move in the sea of imagination, take as much knowledge as he can have about other cultural spaces, occupy the imaginations in those spaces, somehow authenticate himself there, experience humanity there...
Nam Le is a chameleon of voices and points of view, leading the reader through the experiences of an older man, a disillusioned young woman, a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a teenage girl. The Boat takes us all over the world with fantastic verisimilitude ... The skill of the author is a spectacle to behold ... He doesn't shy away from stark and disturbing images, for example, yet he doesn't rely on the grotesque to create effective writing ... Each story is dark and deep, exquisitely constructed and beautifully told.
Nam Le’s short story collection The Boat can be praised with all the conventional kudo-clusters that reviewers bestow on an up-and-coming author. It is emotionally resonant, piquantly written, exciting, promising. It demonstrates a thrilling range of talents and an extraordinary depth of feeling. It is memorable, harrowing, and polished ... Le’s great gift is in his ability to control his characters through their environments—he reaches into them with the wind and waves of his settings, and provokes their responses without appearing to manipulate them ... Le’s deft touch is due in large part to his keenness of perception when it comes to anticipating his audience’s rhythms of attention, emotion and analysis. Le knows when to slip in a meaningful word or observation and, more importantly, when one would go to waste.
A polished and intense debut story collection of astonishing range ... The book is very good, even if sometimes the stories lack satisfying resolutions. Ironically, and slyly, with a nod to the opening story, the final piece, which gives the book its name, is an imaginative reconstruction of what it felt like to be a boat person, to launch into a 12-day journey with no foreseeable end ... Consummately self-assured.