Jack Wang’s first collection of short fiction, We Two Alone, is a superior example of the form, beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant, and dramatically satisfying. Wang’s characters are primarily Chinese nationals and the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants, people who are struggling to acclimatize to shifting geopolitical environments and/or deal with crises that threaten their way of life and sometimes their very survival.
Racism is present in many of these stories, either hovering menacingly in the background or playing a dominant role in the lives of Wang’s characters. For instance, “The Valkyries” takes place in Vancouver and Banff shortly after the end of the First World War. Teenage orphan Nelson, who lives in Vancouver’s Chinatown and works in a laundry, loves hockey and is highly skilled, but being Chinese he’s denied the opportunity to play in an organized men’s league. Instead, when he discovers a women’s league, he assumes a disguise, passes himself off as “Nelly,” and becomes one of the stars for his team, the Valkyries. But when his deception is uncovered, the price he pays goes far beyond a mere settling of scores.
A remarkable feature of Wang’s fiction is his ability to convincingly evoke an assortment of cultural and historical contexts. In “The Nature of Things,” it is 1937. Young Chinese couple Frank and Alice must flee Shanghai because of the escalating hostilities with Japan. Frank, an American-educated physician, puts his pregnant wife on a train to safety but refuses to leave the city himself because of his work. From this point, the story chronicles Alice’s desperate yearning and fears for her husband after the Japanese invasion, and her eventual realization that she will never see him again. The narrator of “The Night of Broken Glass” is recalling the time just prior to World War II when he, his father and stepmother lived in Vienna. The narrator’s father is a Chinese diplomat, versed in the ways of the world, wily and pragmatic, and the story tells of the father’s careful navigation of shifting political winds when the Nazis move into Austria and begin victimizing Jews, minorities and foreign nationals. “Everything in Between,” set in South Africa at the beginning of the Apartheid era, describes a Chinese family’s efforts to live a normal life under exceedingly challenging circumstances. “Bellsize Park” takes place in contemporary England and poignantly depicts the doomed relationship of two students: Peter, who is Chinese, and Fiona, who is English. And in “All Hallows” divorced Ernie’s irresponsible nature is thrown into sharp relief when he takes his children, Ben and Toby, trick-or-treating the day after Halloween because he’d failed to show up the night before as he’d promised.
As good as these stories are, the outstanding piece in this collection is the masterful novella from which the volume takes its title. Leonard and Emily, both actors, are divorced. Leonard, in his late forties and still hunting for the Big Break, is entering a premature cognitive decline, which he recognizes because it is the same disorder that left his mother debilitated before her death. As he struggles with worsening symptoms, he recalls his years married to Emily, who finally gave up on the dream, retired from acting and left Leonard when he refused to do the same. Wang chronicles their life together from beginning to end: the shared aspirations, thwarted idealism, the minor triumphs countered by heartrending setbacks that marked their marriage and their careers. In the end, a crisis brings Leonard and Emily together one more time to enact a final scene before Leonard slips into the darkness and is unable to remember what they meant to each other.
There is an effortless and seamless quality to Jack Wang’s writing that is particularly impressive. The nuts and bolts of craft, the scaffolding of plot, never intrude on the reader’s experience. In each of these tales, Wang generates considerable narrative momentum by introducing his characters in place, slowly revealing their hopes and fears as he ramps up the stakes and the tension, and then letting the drama unfold in a manner that is patient and never forced. There is nothing cheap or maudlin going on here. Wang frequently elicits an emotional response from the reader, but without exception, this reaction arises naturally out of the drama we’re witnessing.
We Two Alone is a thoroughly engaging volume of short fiction by an exceptionally talented author. These are near flawless tales of personal struggle and modern angst: deeply empathetic, humane stories by a writer whose command of form and technique is unfailing.
Winner of the 2020 Danuta Gleed Literary Award
JACK WANG received a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Florida State University. In 2014–15, he held the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Stories in his debut collection, We Two Alone, have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Journey Prize, and have appeared in PRISM International, the Malahat Review, the New Quarterly, the Humber Literary Review, and Joyland. Originally from Vancouver, Jack Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his wife, novelist Angelina Mirabella, and their two daughters.
- Publisher : House of Anansi Press (Sept. 1 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 296 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1487007469
- ISBN-13 : 978-1487007461
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