Reviewed by Maria Pane
Protagonists within Bonnie Chau’s short story collection, All Roads Lead to Blood, are characterized and defined as the author reveals and explores their most intimate moments. There are profound cultural themes in the stories, as all of the main characters are woman as well as are second-generation Chinese American. This makes the text particularly impactful to read because through the rich content and fluid prose, Chau develops unique multicultural and dynamic voices. Every main character Chau introduces explores herself—mind, body and place in this world—as well as her interpersonal relationships with parents, sisters, and significant others. It is not just the characters’ expectations that propel the narratives, but also the pressure of outside factors that compel the characters to be someone they are not. The narratives are often uncomfortable, intertwining details that verge on grotesque with beautiful insights on the larger truths of life. Chau creates a relevant and masterful book by writing about the lives of Chinese American women in the present tense. She orients the stories squarely in our contemporary world with stories about people needing to find themselves within the difficult and ever-evolving sociopolitical climate and adds texture to the work by adding an element of duel identity offering a fresh and distinct perspective. We, as readers, attempt to unravel the inner workings behind the intention of each character’s thoughts and feelings, while desperately grasping at threads of reality in the prose that lead us along the road of uncertainty in what will come next.
Themes of growth and coming into one’s own develop over the course of the collection. Finding a sense of self within one’s body, mind, and heritage begins in the first story, “Monstrosity,” when the narrator looks into the mirror and her reflection becomes a person of its own. The reflection says, “You be me and I’ll be the other you.” Going on to explain, “We will both be you . . . and it will be so much better for us. You be one you, and I’ll be the other you, we will contradict each other, but not ourselves.” Eventually, she clarifies, “I will be the Chinese you.” This moment of confrontation creates opposing feelings of alienation and comfort that reflect the growing tensions developed throughout the book. In the next story, “Medusa Jellyfish,” the prose is broken into sections that cover time in a stilted way. Chau depicts what it means to be stuck between two lives through the growth and subsequent breakdown of a relationship via the entrance of a jellyfish through a faucet. The appearance of a jellyfish creates a winding metaphor of self-identity within the main character, Rhiannon, in relation to the outer world. Chau captures vivid language within the jellyfish imagery. One example is the slow defining description of the jellyfish, “Like one drop of water, that stretches itself, stretches itself into slow motion beyond-time goo. It is perfectly clear, perfectly crystalline and defined. A cartoon.” This fantastical moment in the prose is the entrance of the “jellyfish” in the room, much like an elephant creating the idea that there are big unspoken problems that will unravel themselves over the course of the collection. Chau’s way with craft stands out to me through the way sentences are structured to ebb and flow in order to accurately depict images in relation to the contents within the story. They create a tone of exasperation and slow forming ambivalence to heritage, failure, and identity that continues through the arch of the narrative.
The heart of the collection is “Stevie Versus the Negative Space,” a story that follows a woman, Stevie, through a series of romantic relationships that eventually lead to her personal progress and finally, her self-discovery. To represent “the negative space,” the space in which Stevie does not feel she occupies within herself, Chau writes, “In order to see the shape of Stevie, start here, with the shapes of the guys.” The same themes show up in “Somebody Else in the Room,” where there is a conversation between the main character and her date:
“No, you know what I mean. Where are you from?”
“No, like what are you? Like Korean, Japanese, Chinese…”
“Are those my only options?”
Chau depicts her characters’ struggles with their sense of self by depicting the ways women are uncomfortable with taking up space. By developing this central theme, Chau’s stories begin to break down that discomfort and show readers the way women can create the space to thrive.
The writing itself is melodic. Chau’s descriptions tie simple objects to specific feelings in order to emphasize loneliness and delusion, as well as to dig beneath clean and maintained exteriors to expose the messy life underneath. One example is when Rhiannon picks up her phone,
“not one of the flat heavy ones that can do everything, the ones that feel like you are holding a window pane of glass balanced in your palm, but a small plastickly one, that she squeezes in her right hand, as if it is a person, the one person whose calls and voicemails and text messages she wishes were an actual person, not just something to read or something to hear.”
Chau brings up intimate human feelings that are not often explicitly drawn out in prose. The language is vivid and intricate pointing my attention to beautiful and captivating writing. The characters’ dialogue is crisp; they say things to one another that may be jolting to a reader, but they always capture a feeling and moment of distance, understanding, and acceptance. Each story has good pacing and gripping endings that pull readers through a journey at every bend in the road.
In the end, as readers, we may be uncomfortable. Chau replaces feelings of relief and belonging with confusion, uncertainty, and disgust through rich and mind-bending descriptions. She creates a book that helps us know what it is to be human and what it means to grow. Despite this discomfort, I highly recommend this collection for its strong, unapologetic voices and beautiful sentences that draw you in and compel you to keep reading. As we read, we come to know intimacy. We come to understand closeness with one’s self. We come to feel the blood in our bodies and see how all roads lead to the self.
All Roads Lead to Blood was published by Santa Fe Writers Project in September 2018. To find out more the title visit their website here.