The seven short stories in The Train to Lo Wu are set in and around Hong Kong, where the author taught English at the university from 1997-99, the two years immediately following the hand-over to China. Hong Kong is at the center of this remarkable collection. For his characters it is an ever-mysterious and floating place, with "green hillsides rising out of a steel-colored sea. Rows of identical white apartment blocks seem to sprout from low-hanging clouds like mushrooms after rain."
For Jess Row, as for numerous writers before him, it is an emblematic city, a cultural intersection where Asia meets the West. At the same time, within this exotic realm, he accomplishes something quite rare for an American storyteller. While giving us stories that are at once artfully crafted and rich in wisdom, he is able to write across the cultural and ethnic lines. He can write, with equal insight and emotional depth, about white Americans overseas and black Americans overseas, about Chinese men and about Chinese women. He can speak convincingly with an Asian's voice.
His lead story, "The Secret of Bats," was first published in Ploughshares, later appeared in Best American Short Stories 2001, and was also a Pushcart Prize selection. I'm not surprised. It's one of the most original stories I've read in quite some time, original for its distilled energy, its unexpected turns, and for Row's ability to enter the lives—the obsessions and fears—of two people from such disparate regions. A young English teacher from New York State finds himself at a Hong Kong high school where "my best student stares at the blackboard only when I erase it." He is both alarmed and intrigued by the unsettling psychology of this 16-year-old girl who has learned, from bats, how to cope with the recent death of her mother: "how they see without seeing, how they own the darkness, as we own the light."
In the title piece (also a Best American Short Stories selection), the central characters are both Chinese. The narrator, a businessman from the New Territories, between Hong Kong and the nearby border with mainland China, has fallen for a young woman who lives in a city across the border. Though they speak the same language, they inhabit different worlds. His dialect is Cantonese, hers is Mandarin. He has a mobility she does not possess. She is trapped by petty political corruption and a set of economic constraints from which she can't escape. With skill and subtlety, Row takes us into their hearts and minds. He understands both these lives. He knows the male, he knows the female, and he also knows these two very different ways of being Chinese.
This is the first published book by a writer whose work has already been honored with an NEA fiction grant and a Whiting Award. Jess Row brings a fresh and welcome vision to contemporary American prose.
Reviewed by James D. Houston