The Frangipani Hotel
By Violet Kupersmith
Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015
$15.00, 240 pages
Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.
Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.
The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.
In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.
Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.
The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).
“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”
A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.
“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.
Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.
Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.
In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”
Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.
“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.
In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.
The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.
2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Deployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.