Sour Heart is a collection of short stories that tell the tale of family, of immigrants coming to 1990’s America and seeing it for what it is, seeing it for the seediness that lay in the shadows of their new-found allegiance. Many of the stories deal with a family dynamic, of femininity, of sexuality and often told from the vantage point of disillusionment. The disenchantment their parents have discovered since emigrating to the USA in the hope of the American dream.
Jenny Zhang is someone I’ve not really heard of before, but is someone that I will forever remember. For the good and the bad. I was asked if we’d review this collection by Bloomsbury as we are a UK short story specialist magazine, and this is, well, a short story collection – but what sets this book apart from the rest of the countless short story collections we receive to review is that this one has a whopping great big heart buried deep within its pages.
Zhang writes in a style I’ve not encountered before and in a way that forces her words into your heart, if you wanted them to or not. There is no escaping her undeniable raw talent.
Zhang style is in a way unapologetic, which I feel could offend some readers. But I also feel it will also win her, her fair share of new followers and plaudits in the year ahead, finding her no-nonsense prose something to admire than admonish. Her unabashed way of dealing with the themes, characters and underlying message within ‘Sour Heart’ is as refreshing as it is obscene – this is a voice you will always remember where you were when you first discovered her, as Lena Dunham attests to on the back cover to the proof I have been unable to tear myself away from.
‘I put my fingers in my vagina, wriggled them all the way in deep until it hurt, and then wiped my fingers on Eddie’s door. “Don’t worry, Eddie,” I said with my mouth pressed up against his door, “even if you don’t come in my room, I’ll still freaking kill you.” I walked back into my bedroom, locked the door, collapsed onto my carpet, put my fingers back in my vagina, and waited for my mother to get home.’
When reading these stories, it is easy to get carried away with them, to be dragged along for the ride, not knowing where you’re going, who you’re going with and in the end finding the whole sorry ride somewhat depressing but cathartic in its execution. When reading I couldn’t help but think of the first times I read Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr – these are people I will always have fond memories of popping my cherry with. Jenny Zhang may well be joining that group of writers.
‘Whenever I’m home for a few days, I start to feel this despair at being back in the place where I had spent so many afternoons dreaming of getting away, so many late nights fantasizing about who I would be once I was allowed to be someone apart from my family, once I was free to commit mistakes on my own. How strange it is to return to a place where my childish notions of freedom are everywhere to be found – in my journals and my doodles and the corners of the room where I sat fuming for hours, counting down the days until I could leave this place and start my real life. But now that trying to become someone on my own is no longer something to dream about but just my ever-present reality, now that my former conviction that I had been burdened with the responsibility of taking care of this household was revealed to be untrue, that all along, my responsibilities had been negligible, illusory even, that all along, our parents had been the ones watching over us-me and my brother- and now that I was on my own, the days of resenting my parents for loving me too much and my brother for needing me too intensely were replaced with the days of feeling bewildered by the prospect of finding some other identity besides “daughter” or “sister.” It turned out that this, too, was terrifying, all of it was terrifying.’
Having praised Zhang for her ballsy debut there are some things that I didn’t get on too well with, but I put this down to it being just that, her debut collection. There are times I felt the collection became a bit repetitive, and often with its graphic qualities – once or twice work nicely but it would appear these shockingly graphic details were relied on too many times in too many stories and became less effective as time went on, causing the words to lose their impact.
I also felt at times Zhang’s repetition of words was somewhat annoying. As mentioned above, once or twice would have been enough but at some points within the book there are half pages written using the same word or phrase repeatedly and to me this felt like lazy writing and in the end just had me skimming over whole sections; in my eagerness to get back to the storytelling that Zhang excels in.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am all for experimental usage of structure in storytelling (Will Self’s ‘Phone’ springs to mind as does George Saunders ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’) but for me this missed the mark, but it shows Zhang’s boldness to push boundaries.
There is no sugar coating that this collection of writing is a bold undertaking – some will love it some will hate it. The stories are sour all the way to the heart of the book. There are stories of sadness, joy and filth; stories that are graphically offensive in places, full of foul language, anger, hope and lust. It’s a collection that is both offensive and endearing all at the same time; it is a book I would highly recommend you try, because currently I feel that there are very few writers out there who are leaving such an aftertaste as Jenny Zhang.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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