BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au [in Shelf Awareness]

Fractured families populate Nancy Au’s provocative 17-story debut collection, highlighting disappearing parents – whether by choice or by death – and the children left to endure and survive. Au draws on her Chinese heritage in her narratives. Some of her characters are deeply affected by recent history: some are escaping the horrific tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, and others have the in-between identity of being an immigrant. Still others are steeped in a cultural legacy that incorporates magic, fox spirits, and dragon gods. Lest readers worry that darkness overshadows, Au proves herself quite adept at sly, affecting humor.

In the titular “Spider Love Song,” a stranger knocks on the bright red door belonging to 10-year-old Sophie and her grandmother and requests their phone to call a tow truck. While she waits, the woman identifies herself as Owl, claiming to have been Sophie’s mother’s college roommate. Sophie knows this to be untrue – her mother commuted daily to school from home. She realizes Owl “is there to snoop,” to test the village rumors about the “crazy” abandoned pair. Sophie’s parents went missing three years ago; since then, Sophie wears only the elephant costume she had on the day of their disappearance.

Children without parents also surface in “Wearing My Skin,” in which a mother and daughter “became [their] own Unit after Dad died,” and seemingly thrive on the phone-sex calls that ring on the red Batman phone. In “Mom’s Desert,” a daughter recalls the day her philandering father moved out, and “Lincoln Chan: Pear King” features an angry teen finally recognizing envious loneliness in his orphaned best friend.

Resilient children are matched by irrepressible (even misbehaving) elders, including a warrior octogenarian in “She Is a Battleground,” prepared to confront her “butter boy” detractors and “yank the fools’ earlobes with joy, grab handfuls of shirt and rip them a new hemline.” A nonagenarian mother in “This Is Me” is not yet ready to be packed away into a retirement home by her 70-year-old daughter. A feisty grandmother in “Bug-Dot Milk” barters free granola coupons after her 11-year-old granddaughter eats bug-infested cereal. And an acerbic, alcoholic Grandpa in “Duck Head” is cleverly outwitted – “brain first, mouth second” – by his daughter and granddaughter during Chinese New Year dinner.

Beyond the children and elderly, Au explores a potential need to escape the mundane and be free of expectations. In “Louise,” a lesbian couple argue over adopting (kidnapping?) a half-blind, limping duck from a public park and living a life “being up in the air.” In “The Fox Spirit,” a younger sister risks parental disobedience and subsequent destruction to save her feverish Elder Sister. And in “Odonata at Rest,” a middle-schooler learns about choice – in detention.

By the book’s end, Au’s unpredictable cast has embodied far-ranging history, cultures, locations, and genres, with irreverently engaging results. For short-form connoisseurs, Au’s accomplishments will undoubtedly regale and resonate.

Shelf Talker: Throughout most of Nancy Au’s intriguing debut collection, the young and the elderly are left to face various challenges – both real and imagined – often in the wake of missing parents.

Review: Shelf Awareness Pro, August 23, 2019

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2019


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