Fiction Review by Jon R. Flieger

Philip Huynh, The Forbidden Purple City (Fredericton: Goose Lane). Paperbound, 264 pp., $22.95.

The Forbidden Purple CityPhilip Huynh’s debut short fiction collection is a study of the Vietnamese diaspora in Canada, focusing on those who (or whose families) have fled war and persecution. The stories move back and forth through time and locale; characters are as likely to brandish a gun while escaping from Vietnamese soldiers as they are to wield a smart phone in a Canadian street. The doubling of lives and histories creates a nice effect in many of the stories, as Huynh explores what is left behind and what can never be abandoned.

The end result is a haunting and haunted collection, a world of judgement and retribution where the past always lingers and can affect the present. Huynh writes of a character struggling with issues of religion whose “father’s Catholicism was touched by a Vietnamese enchantment – where spirits of departed ancestors shared our world, seemed to linger under the branches of every tree.” This slightly mystical underpinning colours the collection—with a layer of obligation and history serving as backdrop to every move the characters make.

The collection is at its best in stories like “The Investment on Dumfries Street” or “Gulliver’s Wife,” where the characters carry around layers of ambiguity and hidden lives within themselves. “Gulliver’s Wife,” for example, gives us a man who, at first blush, appears to be a bit of a bumbling academic who can’t quite seem to get his head around a dissertation. Yet he carries with him blood and violence that seems incongruous with his new day-to-day life. This inherent quiet threat builds as his academic failures align with his wife and son showing an interest in the son’s new French teacher. The wife—positioned as a woman caught between places, religions, languages, and commitments—serves as a micro-study of Huynh’s diasporic inquest. She is impossibly out of place while trying to create a home for her son; she is fearful, hopeful, and willing to adapt to the new while desperate to hold on to something familiar. Her perhaps innocent and perhaps not (the ambiguities of the story lead to one of the best and most open to interpretation endings I have ever encountered in short fiction) interest in her son’s teacher hint at a life that has been denied her. Even the teacher himself, who is almost ancillary to the real drama of the story and who a lesser writer would have been tempted to treat as such, is well-realized. He became a teacher in Vancouver because his father was a doctor in Montreal. “If he had become a doctor,” Huynh tells us, “he would have been a sparrow walking in the footprints of a bear.” The story is a masterpiece.

The other stories in the collection are mostly strong and tread similar ground, although few quite reach the same level of profitable ambiguity. “Toad Poem” follows a supercilious old man whose delusions of grandeur mask feelings that he has betrayed his past and his family. “Forbidden Purple City” considers long-term friendships through dramatic and violent trauma and the quotidian banalities of years piling on top of one another. The specter of family, of the past, and of Vietnam is never absent from the hopes and fears of the characters.

It’s a good book and a fantastic debut. If I have a criticism of the work, beyond the fact that Huynh has a tendency to simply state the exact thought process of his protagonists (and the older his characters, the more simplified and on-the-nose these statements become), it is that the stories do get a bit same-y. Invariably, characters walk around, look at things, remember things, have both positive and negative associations with the place they’re in and the places they’ve been, and then have a very earnest conversation with other characters who appear to be experiencing similar complicated nostalgia that day.

It’s all a bit one note, but it’s a good note to hit. Huynh is a master of the short story, especially the type perfect for journal publication, where each story draws you in, creates a world, and then you’re done. In a collection, however, we have to walk this path again. And again. The same structures and similar narrative turns become rote very quickly. Without the palette cleanse of other writers and styles that journals offer, book collections are under pressure to present diverse characters, voices, styles, and approaches. Huynh’s characters have different ages, genders, and social classes, but their thought processes are very similar and their concerns tend to be slightly different variations on the same things.

There is an Ondaatje or Obreht-like quality to the best of the stories – a fascination with language as a means of connection as well as isolation, and of culture as both an identity and a scar. There is a subtle magic moving through the work, a dreamy interweaving of multiple times and places that evokes simultaneous nostalgia and dread. Yet, after a few of these weavings it begins to feel less like a collection and more like a novel that didn’t quite shape up, but this is a quibble with the whole, not a complaint about the stories individually. 

The worst criticism I can level at Huynh is that he writes so well on a single theme that I wish he’d just give me a long work to consider. I’ll certainly be looking out for his next offering.


—Jon R. Flieger

As in The Malahat Review, 208, Autumn 2019