May-Lan Tan’s short story collection, Things to Make and Break, often feels like a breath of fresh air. Tan’s imagery is vivid in an economical way; a description that sticks with me is ‘smoke bled from his mouth’. Tan convincingly writes in many voices throughout this collection: men, women, children and older people, all with different concerns. Some stories are stronger than others, which is usually the case with first collections.
The collection starts out with ‘Legendary’ and it sets the tone well for the remaining stories. We start to see the recurring themes of people falling together and then apart, characters making connections and breaking them. In ‘Legendry’, a woman becomes obsessed with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends, especially one in particular. The narrator of this story seems more connected to her boyfriend’s naked photos of his ex-lovers than she does to him, as she imagines herself making an appearance in the collection. One of these ex-girlfriends has a tanned body, which is described as being ‘pumped full of sun.’ I love Tan’s poetic writing style: images such as this lingered with me long after I finished the book.
Stand out stories for me include ‘101’, in which a woman sleeps with her new brother-in-law at her sister’s wedding. By the end of the story, the narrator can see the direct consequences of what might have happened if she had acted a certain way, leading her to say that ‘most people never know exactly what they’ve missed.’ ‘101’ is a wonderful short story, and I don’t want to give much away about it, but the setting up of the character knowing what they missed is heart-breaking and clever.
Another favourite is ‘Laurens’, which was horrifying but brilliant. It is told from the perspective of two separate children who have bad parents. The first part of the story is from the perspective of an abused girl who snaps. Her retaliation, and what goes through her mind, is captured brilliantly; it is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. The second child is involved in a car crash and his father is the drunk-driver. I felt that Tan really got into the minds of these children, even if at some points they sounded a little older than they perhaps were. On the whole, though, ‘Laurens’ is horrific in a wonderful way; a lot of sensitivity and intelligence is required to write something like this.
‘Candy Glass’ too was very interesting, bringing up ideas of conformity and gender roles; also it questions the validity of what we see on a film screen. Written as a film script, which I was unsure about at first, it strikes a different tone from the other stories. But Tan’s voice remains strong and I was very moved by Alexa and DC’s story: they were able to understand each other, but only for a moment.
My favourite story was the last one in the collection. ‘Would Like To Meet’ is set up in such a way that made me believe that by answering an advert for a couple looking for ‘something real’ the narrator was going to get herself into some kinky hijinks, reminiscent of other stories in the collection. The something real turns out to be something a lot realer. Some of Tan’s best stories involve her subverting the initial responses of the reader, and this one was wonderful.
All in all, I adored many stories in this collection. The quality was a little mixed, but perhaps that’s unfair of me because when I liked a story I really liked it. I feel like I have reviewed my favourite stories rather cryptically here but I think that they demand it. I am eagerly anticipating reading whatever May-Lan Tan writes next and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of Things to Make and Break, too.