Book review: Birds of Paradise Lost, by Andrew Lam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:06pm

Birds of Paradise Lost

by Andrew Lam

Red Hen Press

Birds of Paradise Lost, the first collection of short stories from Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam, is frustrating. Which is not to say it's not enjoyable - Lam has a sense of plot and pacing that is as important as it is rare in short story writing. The stories here manage to surprise and each is artfully structured; they seem measured down to the word to leave the reader satisfied, never fatigued or left hanging.

Often Lam's stories are genuinely and uniquely moving. He almost always avoids the obvious solutions, the sentimentality looming around every corner and instead presents a series of characters damaged and haunted in their own intensely personal ways.

Lam's characters are without exception flawed, sometimes completely broken, but their identities and actions, while sometimes inexplicable, ring true.

The frustration comes whenever the characters open their mouths: Lam has a talent for story but a tin ear for dialogue.

His adult or elderly characters speak with a natural ease that while not flawless, is at least believable. But the young characters - of which this book has many - speak in a way that just sounds wrong: forced, awkward slang, chunky and obvious declarations. This is especially true in Slingshot and Bright Clouds Over the Mekong, where the dialogue threatens to eclipse the engaging stories.

This issue would probably not be as noticeable in the context of one short story, but taken over the course of the book the similar deficiencies in the way each character speaks is distracting.

Reading this collection from beginning to end also makes it clear how limited Lam's preferred themes are. Certainly the Vietnamese diaspora's experience in the San Francisco Bay Area is a rich source of inspiration, but the similarities between each story give the book as a whole a confined feeling - this may be Lam's intention, confinement being a common theme in the stories - and leaves you wishing that an author of his considerable gifts would expand his scope a bit.

Birds of Paradise Lost ends on a high note. The last two stories - Close to the Bone, and Step Up and Whistle - are the collection's best (although Hunger, about a single father struggling to raise his daughter in a San Francisco housing project, is also excellent). These two are lovely, fully formed jewels of stories whose characters ring true - even when they speak. And both stories are genuinely, sometimes startlingly, moving.

It is a testament to Lam's talent that despite the frustrations, when you come to the end of the final story, you are left craving more.