“In the land of hit and miss” – Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong

We are, here at Bookmunch, what you might call partial to the odd short story. We’re also aware that short story collections tend to sell a little more than poetry collections and quite a bit less than novels and works of nonfiction. In some way, they are the proverbial curate’s egg. This much we all know and probably agree on. Given this state of affairs, though, we tend to work on the basis that if a collection of stories is published by a new writer, it’s because those stories raise the bar, kick ass, do something a little different – as such, we come to collections of stories by (to us) debut writers with high expectations. 

Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like a Mirror was first published in Chinese in 2014 and has now been translated into English by Natascha Bruce. What we have here are nine stories, some of which are extremely intriguing (in a ‘could Ho Sok Fong be the new Han Kang sort of way?’) and some of which are – let’s be kind – somewhat short of the mark. At her best, Fong sets up an odd set of circumstances and riffs in a beguiling way (so, for example, in the book’s opener ‘The Wall’, a high wall is built next to a row of houses to protect them from a busy expressway, except the wall is so close back doors no longer open and the small guttering becomes full of rubbish; an old woman befriends a cat and, to the chagrin of her neglectful husband, gradually becomes thinner and thinner until she passes out of the door and into local legend; or in ‘March in a Small Town’, the story that closes the book, in which a young woman works the front desk in a small hotel and gradually gets drawn into the mystery of a young man who checks in afresh every day with no knowledge of ever having been there before). Whether she is telling the story of the tragedy that sits beneath the opening of a local hairdressing salon or uncovering the peculiar circumstances around an old chest discovered in the back of a cupboard in a cobwebbed shop, her tone is such that you are drawn in and compelled to excavate at the nagging, illusory words and pictures she conjures.

At her best – as in the title story – she engages with the world and then tilts reality so your interest is first piqued and then arrested, sent tumbling foot over head like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. So, in ‘Lake Like a Mirror’, a young teacher co-exists in an establishment held to ransom by students who can have their teachers fired if they say anything that the students themselves dislike – but then this is China and so the threat can do more than simply ruin you, you can be disappeared. And yet this distant threat is not what fuels the story – rather it is the detached narrator herself, observing, withdrawing, nervously worrying, before, seemingly, succumbing to the world. 

Time and again, the writing (and/or the translation thereof) that stops you in your tracks. Here is the thinning granny from ‘The Wall’:

“…she was more aware than ever of the feeling in each part of her body. A sensation of hot or cold in her chest spread rapidly to her back, then swiftly through her limbs to her fingers and toes. Nothing stayed in one place. She felt everything more thoroughly and intensely than before.”

Here is the shopkeeper from ‘The Chest’, terrified in the night:

“…the loneliness was terrifying. In the darkness of the universe, her fate had been decided. She felt her strength wither. Life was an infinite sea of bitterness. She thought: If I fall asleep, and never wake up, that’s fine by me.”

But then there are stories here that feel like junior efforts – particularly, ‘Aminah’ and ‘Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani’, a complementary pairing at the dead centre of the book, concerned with a hostel of sorts where young girls are sent to become more devout in the ways of Islam. Each story is betrayed by its own circularity, its own rootlessness, writing that seems to scratch like a hen at a patch in the ground without quite getting to a story. 

“It takes a long time to return to normal and in the meantime she leans against her pillow, writing laboriously, one stroke and then another, sobbing poor thing poor thing poor thing poor thing until she can’t write no more.”

‘Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani’ in particular is something of a test of endurance. 

“First you have to free yourself, says the tip of the nose. You can only be angry so long before your nose gets blocked, as if you’ve flung it into the sea and the salt water has come in to drown your heart and lungs and stomach.”

As you read, it comes to feel like automatic writing, lacking sense:

“Builds build nests in holes beneath the eaves. Spiders are massacred and then reborn, lurking in the corners of the ceiling while their legs grow long again. Cat shit stinks up the garden.”

Which isn’t to say that the collection diminishes as it progresses (‘October’, for instance, feels like a weird conjunction of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet and Pirates of the Caribbean, and the aforementioned ‘March in a Small Town’ which feels like a curious retelling of ‘City of Ghosts’ from Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, are worth the price of admission alone) and more to say that we are, at times, in the land of hit and miss. 

Any Cop?: It’s a book of short stories (and we support all publishers who publish short stories) and it’s fiction in translation (which we also wholeheartedly support) and so we’d give it a tentative thumb’s up on that basis alone. Fong is certainly a writer to keep an eye on. Just don’t come here expecting an unadulterated thrill ride. There are longueurs. Provided you know that, and you pick up the book with your eyes open, there is just about enough here to repay your time.

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