The Boat is a collection of short stories by Nam Le, an Australian-Vietnamese writer, who came over to Australia with his parents when he was a young child. Nam Le worked as a corporate lawyer before he became a writer.
You would have thought The Boat would encompass everything about Vietnamese refugees and their lives but it turns out otherwise. Only the book’s opening and final stories reflect Vietnamese accounts. The protagonists in the other five stories come from different parts of the world; they include a Colombian hit man, an elderly New York painter, an 8-year-old Japanese girl in Hiroshima, an Australian teenager and an American lawyer visiting a friend in Tehran.
Nam Le does a great job in breaking the age-old rule about writing, that is, “write what you know” in this debut work. What I find simply amazing is that the language and tone of each story matches the character and the setting perfectly. I believe Nam Le must have done extensive research to incorporate Colombian gangster slangs and even Japanese patriotic slogans in his works.
Of the seven stories in this book, I think the most touching and unforgettable one is the final story “The Boat” because it reflects the extreme sufferings that refugees undergo (often risking their lives) when they try to escape from their troubled countries. Reading this makes me feel privileged to be where I am right now.
The story documents a refugee boat’s progress across the South China Seas – a day-to-day account is given where the engines eventually fail and when food and water supplies dwindle. Mai (the protagonist) becomes friends with Quyen and her six-year-old son Truong on the boat. Mai grows close to Truong but their relationship comes to a tragic end when Truong dies.
It’s not surprising that Truong would die eventually. The cramped conditions and a lack of food and water supplies would test anybody’s spirit. Imagine squashing yourself with two hundred over bodies in a boat meant for fifteen, and putting up with others’ bodily secretions, and sleeping next to somebody’s vomit and watching dead bodies being thrown overboard for thirteen days. How horrifying. As days passed by, Mai becomes numbed to the experience:
“As more and more bundles were thrown overboard she taught herself not to look – not to think of the bundles as human – she resisted the impulse to identify which families had been depleted. She seized distraction from the immediate things: the weather, the next swallow of water, the ever-forward draw of time.”
So, it’s a relief, even for the readers, when the refugees finally sighted land on the thirteenth day.
Nam Le does a great job in sustaining emotion and suspense throughout this grim and unrelenting tale. He does this with flashback scenes revealing Mai’s background and Quyen’s relationship with her illegitimate son, Truong. Although these scenes seem less significant than the characters’ present conditions, they allow the readers to breathe. Without them, the readers would either be in a perpetual state of tension or be easily bored reading a ‘monotonous’ account of the sorry and sordid state of affairs.
I’d like to think the theme running throughout this story and the other stories in the book are on relationships and the reminder that we are ultimately alone in our pursuit of living or even when dying (which reminds me of a similar theme in The Old Man and The Sea).
Although almost all the stories in The Boat are about the end of life, the protagonists emerge empowered, even if they are temporarily saddened. But hey, that’s life, isn’t it? For this very reason, besides the fact that all the stories are so different from one another (it’s hard to believe they are the work of a single author), The Boat is worth a read.