When it comes to magical realism, especially magical realism set in East Asia, Japanese superstar Haruki Murakami gets all the love. When agents tell aspiring writers, “No one reads magical realism,” they add, “Except Murakami.” And Murakami is great! If you like spaghetti, cats, and disappearing women, he’ll keep you set for life.
If you want to branch out, though, debut writer Violet Kupersmith’s collection The Frangipani Hotel is similarly imaginative, yet one of a kind. Almost every story is a ghost story connected, in some way, to Vietnam. Some are set there, in a small, remote countryside house where old war buddies convene to sing songs and get drunk, for example, or in cramped, humid Saigon where a tween sent abroad to lose weight gets lost trying to follow the scent of banh mi. (Often the city’s denseness plays the same role as the woods do in tales like “Hansel and Gretel.”) Others are set in Houston, where expats and their children try to make sense of life in America and out of context.
Like all proper ghosts, Kupersmith’s have agendas. Many are wives, mothers, and lovers who have grievances from decades ago, jealousies and anger, and they are out for blood. Just as we do not forget the dead, the dead, it turns out, remember us. Memory doesn’t stop at the grave’s edge. Memory begins there, and then it takes on an afterlife of its own.
Many of the stories in The Frangipani Hotel are memories themselves, recounted by one character to another. These framing devices could distance the reader but instead lend a powerful immediacy. In “The Red Veil,” a tale purportedly about a young nun soon shifts its focus to a much older one, who, when asked for spiritual advice, instead gives a lesson in how to make egg rolls—and leaves the younger nun so shaken she can do little else.
In “Boat Story,” told entirely through dialogue, a grandmother presses on her inquiring granddaughter both papaya and her memory of being stalked in a storm by a drowned man. The granddaughter, sick to her stomach from fruit and dread, says, “‘What am I supposed to do with a story like that?…I want the real story!” The grandmother is unmoved. “‘Con, if you were listening you would have learned almost everything you need to know about your history. The first rule of the country we came from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.”
The stories in Frangipani Hotel both obey that tenet and foreground characters who scrape their knees against its inevitability, like the truck driver in “Little Brother,” who agrees to take a dying hitchhiker home to the countryside, or the itchy young hotel employee in “Reception,” who encounters the girl of his dreams in an unoccupied room. With only one or two exceptions, characters do not find mercy or redemption in the darkness, but they do find someone to listen to them. And a writer of Kupersmith’s talent should find people to listen to her for a long time to come.
Do you like ghost stories?