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TransparencyReview - Transparency
Stories
by Frances Hwang
Back Bay Books, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jul 24th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 30)

Transparency is a first collection of short stories by Frances Hwang, an American fiction writer who has collected a number of awards and fellowships for her work. Drawing on her own experience as the daughter of immigrants from Taipei, this volume of ten stories is an impressive debut. The cover notes compare Hwang's work to that of Jhumpa Lahiri, another writer whose cultural background provides an impetus for her writing. It would be a mistake, however, to simply pigeon hole Hwang into a category of 'ethnic writers'. Her work is subtle and complex, leaving readers connected with her characters, and moved by unfolding narratives that contain a myriad of small surprises. Transparency shows a new writer already well in charge of her craft, and raises hopes that Hwang will produce many more collections.

Many of Hwang's characters are lonely, sad, or isolated, but the extent of their loneliness is not always apparent until events allow the reader to see beyond the surface of their lives. In the opening story, The Old Gentleman, Agnes observes with concern, her aging father's involvement and marriage to a younger woman, who Agnes suspects of scheming to obtain a Green Card. Agnes is right, but when she finds her father's cache of letters she discovers there's more to his life than she knew. A Visit to the Suns explores the conflicts between two generations of a Chinese American family, with June, niece and cousin respectively to the two protagonists called upon to mediate. The tension of this story appears to be around a crucial conversation June is to have with her cousin, but Hwang skillfully uses this to reach further, showing how small deceptions allow individuals to save face, but also trap them in self limiting beliefs and relationships. Hwang records all this without judgment. Hers is not the role of the arbiter of values, but of the chronicler of lives.

Remedies contains some superb examples of Hwang's ability to evoke experiences with a lightness of touch that nevertheless leaves an indelible impression. A daughter observes her mother's face and reflects: "....I had a strange feeling of looking at myself. It was the first time I saw my face rising beneath the surface of hers." Later, when the mother seizes the daughter's wrists "Her gnarled left hand tightened around my wrist with a pressure stronger than words." Giving a Clock explores death and loss, as well as the sway of traditional beliefs, even as new immigrants observe the customs of their adopted home. In The Blue Hour, the focus is on how relationships change as young people grow up, grow apart, and in unpredictable circumstances make decisions that will stay with them throughout their lives. This story clearly shows that while Hwang is a consummate chronicler of the immigrant experience, this is the ground that nurtured her observations, it is not the limits of her vision. The Blue Hour could have been written by a sixth generation American, such is the sharpness of its perspective on young adult life.

Hwang's stories don't achieve a neat resolution. Tensions and relationships are left open, inviting the reader to look into the future, to imagine the characters a year or ten years hence. In the title story, Transparency, a family is on holiday, being driven (badly) by the mother through an arid, mountainous area. The father has trouble breathing and is convinced he will die before the trip is out. Ten pages later, after the man's conversation with a dipsomaniac at the local Emergency Department, the family is back together again with the son driving. Things have moved on, but there is no high point of tension to bring the story to a climax. Hwang is content to show us how lives unfold. She doesn't need a tidy resolution to convince readers that she has 'told a story'. The characters of the family members are sufficiently evoked to enable us to share this slice of life without demanding that something happens. One of the longer stories, Sonata for the Left Hand, is told in three parts, relating two love affairs against the backdrop of marriage and Hurricane Katrina. In the end the narrator is sitting in a train, as the train beside her rushes by. Again, there is no resolution, but a compelling slice of life.

If there is one story I didn't especially enjoy it was Intruders, a story about a writer's sojourn at an artists' colony. Fictional stories about art always seem to me to be dangerous territory: artists are at their best in describing ordinary life rather than the creative process. And an artists' colony doesn't strike me as nearly as interesting as a fishing village, a city street, or the shopfloor of a factory. I tired of this story before the narrator tired of the earnest Martin. With the final story Garden City Hwang returns to the theme of immigrant experience, this time to show a Chinese couple with years of buried grief over the premature death of their son, struggling with the decision to evict a Christian tenant from their ill-conceived rental apartment. In this story Hwang skillfully brings together themes of sorrow, yearning and disappointment.

Transparency comes complete with a "reading group guide" which I didn't read, but I suppose readers who attend reading groups might find this of interest. This is certainly a strong collection of stories, and Frances Hwang is a writer to watch.

 

© 2007 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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