A Review of Don Lee’s “The Partition”
Alone and Apart
Author Don Lee and I go way back. I reviewed his 2012 novel, The Collective, for a popular webzine, and wrote a glowing piece about that book, which focused on a group of Asian American art college kids who were grappling with their art and their relationships (and particularly their relationships with white people, if memory serves correct) at the same time. Turns out that the publicist must have really liked that review because a piece of it was blurbed on the opening inside pages of the paperback edition that came out about a year later — which is probably as close as I’m going to get to being published in book form by a major publisher. The Collective was a good read, but his latest book, a collection of nine short stories called The Partition, is even better yet. It is simply a Grade A, top drawer collection of stories featuring Asian American characters who are grappling with their identities. It’s simply a must-read, even if it treads somewhat similar ground to Gish Jen’s Thank You, Mr. Nixon, another story collection that came out earlier this year. Each of these stories is self-contained but features characters that are so enduring, but feature characters that are so enduring, you wish that almost each of these pieces be expanded to novel-length tales just so we can find out what happens to them — even if Lee does include a bit of a précis as to what happens to them sometimes.
There is an old saw that every short story collection contains some clunkers — and that some stories are better than others. That’s not really the case with The Partition: virtually all these stories are worthy of merit in some way, and they are all immaculately detailed and exceedingly well written. My favourite of the batch might just be the titular piece, where an androgynous woman living in California and is on track to being tenured at the college she teaches at, finds her life unravelling over a novel she translated that wasn’t entirely faithful to the source. It’s a story that’s partially about the rift between Asians and Asian Americans, but it’s also a piece about artistic integrity and how art is shaped by languages. It’s a stunningly good read, one that ends with an unexpected conclusion. But picking a favoured story shouldn’t diminish the other stories as there are some interesting experiments here. For instance, the final three stories all feature the same character at different ages of his life and form a sort of novella. There’s a link between the final story and the first story in the collection, the latter being a tale about an Asian American film director struggling to be heard and seen.
That’s the thing about The Partition: it has a uniform voice, and you can tell that you’re in the talented and capable hands of a master who clearly knows what he is doing. I found it interesting that every single one of these stories, in some way, features food, which would make for an interesting comparison with another book being released on the same day that looks at family dynamics in the restaurant biz: Jennifer Close’s Marrying the Ketchups. And all of the stories here focus on romantic and sexual relationships, all of them failures. That makes The Partition a puzzle of a short story collection: everything is well pieced together and fits together well. This isn’t merely some hodgepodge collection of stories that aren’t thematically linked: every piece has its place. While it’s true that some might find this to be rather one-note, and that the collection might be a tad repetitive, the thing is that there’s enough variety introduced into these characters’ circumstances that makes for an interesting and illuminating read.
Don Lee might not be a household name, but he’s somewhat well known among those following American letters. He’s friends with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan, who thanks him for being a reader of early drafts of her recent book The Candy House and blurbs The Partition on its front cover. (Lee returns the favour by thanking her in the acknowledgments section of this collection.) He’s also the type of writer, to the best of my knowledge, who is consistently good. With The Partition, however, he kicks his writing up a notch and takes it to a whole other level. This is an exceptionally well-crafted book about what it means to be a person of colour in the United States and what it means to be something of a half-breed (if I can use that term colloquially), as many of the characters are of mixed race. That makes it difficult for them to truly fit in and find their place in society — Americans shun them for being too ethnic, while Asians shun them for not being ethnic enough — and this is a provocative, eye-opening read on how some people will never truly full fit into American or Asian society, thus never attaining the American Dream. That makes this an important book — however, it’s also one that is wonderfully written, which is probably the real reason you should seek this out.
In the end, The Partition is essentially a book that shows what it means to be alone and apart — distinct from the pack — and covers a lot of ground. (It should be mentioned that it is set from the mid-‘70s to the present day, COVID and all, for instance — making it enduring and relevant for readers in the here and now.) I cannot be more effusive in my praise for The Partition: this is a special book that is pure magic on several levels. Along with the aforementioned Thank You, Mr. Nixon, this just might be one of the best story collections to come along in some time and should be sought out by readers interested in Asian culture. It’s a true keeper and should be savoured by all.
Don Lee’s The Partition will be published by Akashic Books on April 26, 2022.
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