This is a moving collection of short stories centered around a fictional Asian country, Ayama Na. Ayama Na has its poor and its rich, its beauty contests, its factories, and its tourists, all of which provide a basis for these enchanting stories. The country is recovering from both an internal coup and a long and devastating drought, providing an emotional and political backdrop for a series of stories which serve to get us acquainted with not only the country but the people it harbors.
As many others have said, getting to know the country of Ayama Na was perhaps the best part of this book. It links all these stories together in a way that would not be possible if they were set in a less colorful, distinctive country, or even one with which we were better acquainted. Ayama Na is fictional, but it doesn’t feel that way. Rather, it feels alive and peeks out through each and every story.
Of course, the stories themselves are well worth reading. I normally worry with short stories. Will I get attached to the characters only to have them taken away? Or will I feel absolutely nothing because the story is just too short for me to care? Luckily, neither of these things happened with this book. Each story is very different but is a fully encapsulated burst of character. In one, “Skin Deep”, a beautiful girl from a very poor family wins the Miss Lake Sporee beauty pageant, moving on to vie for the title of Miss Ayama Na. For her talent, she learns to throw her voice and becomes a ventriloquist. Song and her dummy have a fascinating relationship, and in the end it is through the dummy, Lulu, that important truths about their country are exposed, rather than smiling lies which normally make up such events.
In another story, “The Cut the Crap Machine”, two of the country’s only remaining playwrights together attempt to compose a play. They both have emerged from the crisis with completely different views on life and to say that they struggle to work together is an understatement. All hope, however, is not lost, and bitterness doesn’t last forever.
My favorite, though, is the last story. “Tea”. Pania’s father announces to her that she is going to a dinner to meet a potential future husband. Pania has embraced the western world and is infuriated, convinced that she has a right to choice. She immediately asks her brother Kol to do something. They meet for tea, but Kol does and says nothing; they don’t even have tea. Pania is outraged still further and only with time does she learn exactly what she is meant to learn.
There are so many stunning contrasts in this book. By using a fictional country, Eleanor Bluestein has been able to show the immense divides between rich and poor, between western and eastern culture, between the farm and the factory. It feels like a behind-the-scenes look that the tourists don’t go see, like in the story “The Blanks”, when the tour guide finally takes an exasperating American couple to an impoverished village so they can see the reality of Ayama Nan lives.
Honestly, this is a wonderful collection. Writing about it has convinced me even more of its beauty. If Asia interests you, if short stories interest you, if anything in this review has captured your interest at all, you should read this book. Do come back tomorrow – you might have a chance to get one step closer.
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