“Powerful, engaging stories” – How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife sets its stall out pretty quickly with the self-titled story that kicks it all off. As we read a story of how a young man from Laos’s attempts to learn to read and pronounce the word knife, and how that affects him in school, before seeing how he later surpasses the language learning of his father, it becomes clear that this will be a book about the less discussed struggles of the immigrant experience. For such a simple premise, this first story is incredibly affecting. That seemingly small struggle is shown to represent the persistent issues that our protagonist and his family are going to face going forward.

Throughout the collection, we return to similar small issues that mean something much bigger. When the mum in ‘Randy Travis’ falls in love with country music, we see how one family member adapting to their new home at a different pace to another can leave an insurmountable gap. In ‘Mani Pedi’, a former boxer becomes a nail stylist. And in this fall from grace we see the importance of family, but we also see how someone has to accept a reduced view of themselves and the exoticisation from others in order to get by. In ‘Edge of the World’ we see resentment from older family members when you adapt in the way they always said they wanted you to. And, probably most powerfully of all, ‘Picking Worms’ shows us how you can dedicate yourself in your new home, work harder than anyone else in your job, and still be looked over when it comes to moving forward and making progress.

These are powerful, engaging stories that take small snapshots of their characters’ lives to build a picture across the whole piece.

All of that said, not every story in the collection soars so high. For every ‘Randy Travis’, which is probably the best story here, there is a ‘Paris’ or a ‘Ewwrkkk’, which just doesn’t have the same impact. That’s not to say that these stories are bad in any way, but if this collection had managed to maintain more of a consistency then it might be a more effective piece of work overall.

Any Cop?: This is well worth a read for its strongest moments. And even those moments that don’t quite reach that standard are decent, and will have something to entertain, amuse, or make you think. Any criticism above is not meant to put the book down, but only to say that it showed potential to be really top drawer on several occasions but in the end is only good.


Fran Slater




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