Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang

Children always seem to see and hear more than we give them credit for.  When we were fighting a bug infestation, the bug guy wanted to talk to the kids to see where the ants were coming from, telling us, "Kids always know where the colony lives."  And he was right.  They immediately took him to the spot and we got rid of our problem.  But it's not just things like this that adults might miss, kids absorb so much more than we suspect (or sometimes want).  Perhaps because they are small and not in our line of sight, they catch nuances and make simple connections that we adults might be too busy or preoccupied or too certain of more complex reasons behind something to make.  Clifford Garstang understands this beautifully in this linked short story collection.

Set on the edges of an artsy neighborhood close to Washington DC's Chinatown and in transition from questionable to gentrified, the stories focus on the inhabitants of a renovated condominium building called Nanking Mansion.  The common thread running through the stories is the quiet, observing presence of the young Zhang boys.  Zhang Feng-qi is a widower whose beautiful American wife Maddie and the mother of their two small boys was killed in a car accident recently.  Feng-qi is struggling with taking care of Simon and Wesley in the wake of this sudden and inexplicable loss.  He brings his aging father over from China to help him with child care and he starts seeing a woman who could be an acceptable replacement wife and mother to the boys.

Each of the eleven stories following Feng-qi's story introduces another inhabitant of Nanking Mansion: the young lawyer whose marriage has failed, the newly pregnant woman with the abusive boyfriend, one half of a gay couple who seem to have settled for each other, a womanizing artist haunted by his past, the building's developer whose health is failing as surely as his interpersonal relationships, the famous writer mourning the end of a Woody Allen-esque relationship with his step-daughter, the woman who is slowly selling off all her possessions just to try and live, the sculptor whose son suddenly appears and accuses him of abandonment.  Each of the inhabitants' stories develops their characters fully and expounds on their life and how they ended up living in this building.  They are all, in their own way, like Zhang Feng-qi, searching for love and learning to overcome the disappointments, tragedies, and unhappiness in their pasts.  Every one of them, whether they know it or not, is looking for connection in this fragmented, lonely world.  The small Zhang brothers dart in and out of each of the narratives, taking in the truth of the other inhabitants of their building, quietly noticing the tenuous, fragile bonds of the others, silent figures on the fringes of everyone's stories.  They do not pass judgment on anyone, observing only, innocent in their childhood and still hoping for the reappearance of their dead mother.

The first and last stories in the book focus on the Zhang family, bringing this unusual novel full circle.  Some of the stories feel as if they were written to stand-alone so there is a bit of repetition in character exposition that would not have been an issue if each story hadn't followed closely on the heels of the one before it.  But this is a minor quibble with this quiet, spare, insightful, and well-written novel in stories.  Garstang touches gently on the landscape of the human heart and the reality of connection in all its permutations.  His characters are full and richly detailed.  Their lives are ones of sadness and desperation but they still reach hopefully toward a better, more fulfilling day.  The tone of the book is a bit melancholic and the snapshots of urban life poetic and sorrowful.  This was truly a wonderful read, tightly packed, reflective, and insightful.  Fans of both novels and short stories will appreciate the depth of writing and characterization here.

For more information about Clifford Garstang and the book visit his web page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I love the interconnectedness of the stories in this collection - it is a different and intriguing way to get to know the main characters.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  2. I'm reading this one now and have to say it's wonderful so far. I don't usually enjoy short story collections but this one is fabulous.


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