Book review: Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au
I first came across Nancy Au’s work when I read her short story, “Odonata at Rest” in the (now sadly on-hiatus) speculative fiction journal, Liminal Stories. “Odonata at Rest” remains one of my favorite stories from that brilliant journal: a gentle, shimmering story of unexpected connections, with a delicate air of fabulism. When I found that Nancy Au’s first collection of short stories was out, I was thrilled for the chance to read it.
Spider Love Song and Other Stories does not disappoint. These seventeen stories slide from realism to outright fantasy, and all points in between. They are centered primarily upon Chinese-American communities in contemporary California, and many, like “Odonata at Rest,” seem to occupy a liminal space between realism and fantasy; even when events are wholly explainable by reality, they seem outlined by the uncanny. In “How to Become Your Own Odyssey, or The Land of Indigestion,” a father eats in his sleep, cleaning out the refrigerator, eating “whole tofu blocks, raw cabbage, even radishes.” He wakes to tell his nine-year-old son stories of magical dreams where he catches fish and ducks with his hands and “eats everything.” His son, desperate for attention, becomes determined to follow his father into such magical nighttime adventures, as the frazzled mother is left to clean up after both. In “Louise,” a woman forms a strange, fierce bond with a one-eyed duck that she finds in a park. In “Odonata at Rest,” quirky, grieving school girl Bernice Chan gets into trouble with the nuns at her school as she also thinks of her mother’s stories (which may or may not be real) of once being a damselfly. And in the title story, “Spider Love Song,” a little girl’s parents mysteriously disappear, leaving her alone with her eccentric grandmother. Both granddaughter and grandmother are grieving, and the granddaughter refuses to take off the elephant costume she was wearing for Halloween when her parents disappeared.
A few stories are written as outright fantasy fairy tales/myths. In the lyrical “Anatomy of a Cloud,” a last dragon tends to her dying lover. And in the affecting “The Fox Spirit,” a young woman meets foxes who advise her on how to rescue her sister from a curse.
There are also stories rooted more firmly in what seems gritty reality. Two of my favorites of these are “The Richmond” and “This is Me.” In these tales, the present is wound with the trauma of the past. “The Richmond” is a deeply moving tale of how immigrants shape a new home in a foreign land, while in “This is Me,” an elderly woman interacts with the daughter who is trying to move her to an elder-care facility. In both stories, memories of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and lost loved ones intrude vividly upon the present.
Together, the stories in this collection are ultimately about family—whether in a fairy tale about foxes or a portrayal of a family dinner. In various ways, these stories probe at family bonds: the hurt and difficulty in them, as well as the love. They are gorgeously strange, vivid, and lyrical. But while even many of the seemingly realist stories are tinged with the uncanny, the most fantastical of stories are also rooted in emotional truth. What struck me most as I finished this collection was the sense of love in many of these tales—the tenderness between mothers and daughters, the love expressed in the wonderful portrayals of food. There is humor, grief, gentleness, resilience, and mystery in these tales. Reading them, I was reminded at points of Kelly Link and Haruki Murakami. But Nancy Au’s voice is also distinctly her own. This collection is an announcement of that distinctive, beautiful, brilliant voice to the world.