The Frangipani Hotel: Kupersmith’s fluid and precise prose rises to moments of beauty

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Frangipani Hotel by Violet KupersmithThe Frangipani Hotel  by Violet Kupersmith

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

While I found most of the stories in Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel to be solidly engaging, I can’t say any of them struck me with any particular weight. They were amiable enough, and several of them had some beautiful passages of description or some sharply defined moments of characterization, and a few have a deliciously creepy supernatural element, but as much as I was mildly enjoying myself, I kept waiting for one to grab me wholly. Unfortunately, none did.

The first, “Boat Story,” opened the collection well, with a teen girl interviewing her Vietnamese grandmother for a class assignment. She could have interviewed her father, but his arrival via plane would only, she says, “get me a B if I’m lucky.”  But her grandmother’s tale?  “Jackpot. Communists! Thai pirates!  Starvation!  That’s an A-plus story.” Unfortunately for her, the story her grandmother relates is not tale of deprivation and desperate flight to America she wanted, though it does involve a boat trip, along with a storm and a decayed corpse. When the girl complains she doesn’t want a ghost story but “the real story” of how her grandmother escaped, her grandmother replies that “everything you need to know about your history” is in this story, and asking, “Did we ever really escape?”  This through-provoking ending allows the story to transcend its basic ghost story nature.

That supernatural element reappears in most other stories, such as the title story, where the hotel is haunted by a beautiful but deadly creature; “Little Brother,” which details a horrifying truck trip; or “One-Finger,” which has a “Monkey’s Paw”-like setting combined with a vengeance-seeking phantom. Many of the elements had a familiar ghost story feel to them, but even if they are familiar in the supernatural sense, that tinge does give a different twist to the usual ex-pat or immigrant story tales one so often sees.

Kupersmith fuses the traditional Vietnamese ghost story (or folk/fairy tale) with not just the modern world, but the modern Vietnamese perspective via a multitude of viewpoints, not only through Vietnamese eyes but also through what those eyes see. And so we have the young worker in the title story who interacts with an American businessman who wants to experience the “real” Vietnam (consider the arrogance of that statement in the businessman’s limited vision/experience), an ex-pat American upset over her American boyfriend potentially sleeping with Vietnamese girls, a young Vietnamese-American sent to Vietnam as a “fat camp” experience, and others.

The war, often a predominant theme in work set in Vietnam, here makes only brief appearances, but is all the more effective for that I’d say, as when an elderly Vietnamese woman hallucinates a tank in her retirement home, a 40-year-old memory brought suddenly and momentarily into seemingly real existence.

As with any collection, the stories vary in quality and fullness. “One-Finger,” for instance, is a bit predictable I’d say, and ends pretty abruptly. A few stories have that less-fleshed-out sense to them, but the ex-pat one, “Guests” is full of sharp characterizations, vivid imagery, and rich plot detail as it relates the story of Mia, a young American working at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh dealing with citizenship and visa requests for children allegedly fathered by Americans. The portrait is of a typical young American abroad — lots of drinking, sex devoid of meaning, patting oneself on the back for the dabbling in “authentic” culture, etc. Mia, though, heads off in a different direction. This is the story with the least amount of supernatural and was probably my favorite out of the collection.

Violet Kupersmith’s prose is always fluid and precise, and rises to moments of beauty in several stories, especially when Kupersmith turns to describing natural settings, while she displays, if a less overtly poetic style, an equally evocative one when describing the more urban settings, say of back alleys or open air markets.

I would have preferred if a few more stories rose to the level of “Guests,” just as I wished more had borne out the promise of humor that first story made to the reader. But The Frangipani Hotel kept me engaged throughout, and if all the stories were not wholly winners, none of them were less than interesting or mildly enjoyable. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 1, 2014. An extraordinarily compelling debut—ghost stories that grapple with the legacy of the Vietnam War. A beautiful young woman appears fully dressed in an overflowing bathtub at the Frangipani Hotel in Hanoi. A jaded teenage girl in Houston befriends an older Vietnamese gentleman she discovers naked behind a dumpster. A trucker in Saigon is asked to drive a dying young man home to his village. A plump Vietnamese-American teenager is sent to her elderly grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City to lose weight, only to be lured out of the house by the wafting aroma of freshly baked bread. In these evocative and always surprising stories, the supernatural coexists with the mundane lives of characters who struggle against the burdens of the past. Based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales told to Kupersmith by her grandmother, these fantastical, chilling, and thoroughly contemporary stories are a boldly original exploration of Vietnamese culture, addressing both the immigrant experience and the lives of those who remained behind. Lurking in the background of them all is a larger ghost—that of the Vietnam War, whose legacy continues to haunt us. Violet Kupersmith’s voice is an exciting addition to the landscape of American fiction. With tremendous depth and range, her stories transcend their genre to make a wholly original statement about the postwar experience.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I’ll have to get this one.

  2. I might enjoy this. My best friend in college was Vietnamese and I’d love to read about their ghost stories.

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