Short story collection lively, engaging

Sunday, August 15, 1999

Who's Irish?: Stories
by Gish Jen. Alfred A. Knopf. 208 pages. $22.

     Gish Jen's third book, like her first two novels, offers witty and tender and tales of people grappling with who they are and where they are going. Instead of "who they are," the previous sentence might have addressed Chinese-American identity, a recurring theme in Jen's work. But that phrase would permit certain readers (you know who you are) to dismiss "Who's Irish?" as "ethnic fiction," stop reading the review, and miss this lively, engaging collection of short stories.
     Jen's narrators speak eloquently of learning to negotiate between a Chinese heritage and an American lifestyle, but do so in a way that feels inviting to all readers. In the title story, a Chinese-born mother forms an unexpected bond with her daughter's Irish-American mother-in-law. And Jen's words captivate, as in another story's vivid depiction of Professor Mo's mannerisms: "A loop-de-loop manner of talking with his hands, and a way of letting his cigarette dangle so loosely from his lips that it resembled a sort of burning dribble." Sentences like this persuade all other sounds and stimuli to fall away, transporting the reader to the world of "Duncan in China," the story of an American-born 30-something's return to the land of his parents' birth.
     Back in the U.S.A., where the rest of these stories take place, Pammie's description of newborn son Adam as "her leaky mammal with the surprising vocal capacity" evokes the joyful exasperation of new-parenthood with deadpan accuracy. And yet, the book is never funny for its own sake; the humor is genuine, developed from the characters and their situations.
     "House, House, Home," more novella than story, presents Pammie looking back on a failed marriage just as a promising new relationship leads her -- and the reader -- forward. The subtle tension between the old life unraveling and the present coming together buoys the narrative along.
     Whether returning to characters from her novels (as two of these stories do) or introducing us to new ones, "Who's Irish?" should elicit smiles of recognition from readers of many cultural backgrounds.
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)




Click here to send feedback.

Copyright © 1999 Charleston.Net. All Rights Reserved.