August 21st, 2014

Review: The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel
by Violet Kupersmith

In The Frangipani Hotel, ghosts haunt the living, the generations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans who live in the shadow of the Vietnam War. In one tale, a Vietnamese girl is sent back to the old country to visit her grandmother and is seduced by the sandwiches made by a street vendor; in another, a young hotel clerk finds a beautiful woman soaking in a bath tub fully dressed, but they have no guests registered to that room. Many stories trace their roots back to traditional Vietnamese folklore as Kupersmith reinvents the ghost stories she heard from her grandmother for a new generation.

Like any short story anthology, a few stories rise above the rest. The story that lingers strongest in my mind is a metamorphosis tale called “Turning Back”. A girl working at a supermarket finds a naked old man digging through the dumpster one morning, and she helps him find some clothing. In return, he shares a horrifying story: every once in a while, he finds himself transformed into a large python, and though his memories of his time in snakeskin are fuzzy, he knows that he kills and eats other animals and even small children. Lately, the spells have lasted longer and longer, and he worries that soon the change will become permanent. Granted, I’m afraid of snakes so any story has them will give me the willies, but the old man’s tired resignation to his fate, hopeful that he’ll be caught and placed in a zoo but aware that he’s far more likely to be shot on sight – makes the tale poignant.

The title story, “The Frangipani Hotel”, is the other story that really felt like a proper ghost story. The hotel is a family-owned affair, rundown and somewhat seedy. The desk clerk narrates the story, about his discovery of the strange woman in room 205, her beauty and unquenchable thirst, and her seduction of a wealthy American who considers the hotel’s crumbling rooms the mark of “authentic, real experiences of the people”. The twist at the end of the story isn’t exactly a surprise, but it is executed so neatly that it is still pleasing.

Other stories aren’t so great. The brief “Descending Dragon”, which closes the book, is so short and abrupt that it feels less like a full story and more like a plot outline that accidentally got slipped into the manuscript. “The Red Veil”, a tale-within-a-tale of twin sisters who run wild after their mother’s death and witness a veiled medium communicating with the dead, has some beautiful imagery and a few genuinely creepy moments, but the framing story that interrupts the narrative hinders its ability to scare the reader.

Still, overall the collection is pretty strong. I now feel inspired to look up more about traditional Vietnamese ghost stories so that I can better appreciate Kupersmith’s retellings.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Frangipani Hotel, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The House of Impossible Loves by Cristina Lopez Barrio
2012: A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama
2011: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: The Rapture by Liz Jensen
2008: My Husband’s Sweethearts by Bridget Asher