Short story collection lively, engaging
Sunday, August 15,
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.
Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College