Peter Ho Davies, of Chinese-Welsh descent, has lived in Malaysia, England, and the United States. He has taught at a number of universities and colleges, including the University of Oregon in its creative writing program. His first book of short stories, The Ugliest House in the World (1997), won an O. Henry Award and a National Endowment Fellowship.
“The Hull Case” concerns a biracial couple purportedly abducted and experimented upon by aliens. Henry is an African American and former G.I. wounded in Korea, and Helen is the Caucasian nurse who tended to him. As they tell their story to an army colonel, Henry is clearly uncomfortable with the whole issue, as he doubts the colonel, or any white authority, will believe them. Helen describes a pregnancy test the short gray men gave her and the discovery they made about Henry’s dentures. Woven into this narrative is a trip that the couple took some time before to Niagara Falls to help Helen forget about a miscarriage, and the little cruelties Henry has suffered growing up black in America. Growing restless during the interview, he goes outside and strikes up a conversation with the colonel’s African American driver. Henry explains how he lost his teeth in a fight with “crackers” who wanted to know his mother’s name. “They beat the tar out of me for keeping that secret,” Henry tells the young driver.
Once the colonel leaves, the tone shifts as the narrative becomes a kind of prediction of the future after the interview: the polite letter from the army thanking them for their cooperation, Henry and Helen visiting doctors, Helen wanting to write a book. Finally, Henry awakens, panicked, from a dream to see his wife “rising above the bed, inch by inexorable inch, in a thin blue light.” Both husband and wife have suffered irretrievable losses—Helen the loss of her unborn child, Henry the loss of his manhood and pride, and the alien experience somehow fills in for these losses. It makes them seem like oddballs, albeit special. The black man in American culture is much like the alien looking in on white America, and the white woman who marries a black man suffers a similar insult. Helen’s family does not fully embrace her husband, and no one takes their abduction story seriously. The last line can be interpreted in two different ways: It underscores the possibility of the story’s veracity—and Helen’s “specialness”—or the couple’s emotional separation from each other.
“Brave Girl,” set in England, is a first-person account from the point of view of a young girl whose parents are divorced. Daddy is a dentist whose patients are exclusively children, and while he works, his daughter occupies herself with grown-up magazines and by admiring her father’s attractive assistant. When a slightly older girl comes in after having damaged a tooth during her ice-skating party, the narrator notices that “my father spoke to her softly as he worked, while Sylvia stroked her forehead, her bright nails in the girl’s fringe. The three of them reminded me of a funny sort of family.” She relates the way in which Daddy compares how he and her mother fell out of love to “falling out of treehouses, or swings, off bicycles or ponies—all the ways kids ended up in his surgery.” The girl recalls that the last time she’d seen her parents touch was when he had to identify the body of a missing patient, a boy. Her mother had wiped away his tears. Later in the story, he offers to extract a baby tooth for the girl, and she marvels at the loss of sensation after he has injected a numbing medication. After he puts his daughter to bed, she gets up and, in front of the mirror, tugs on each one of her teeth to test their firmness.
As Randall Curb comments in Boston Review:
The symbolism is so obvious here you almost don’t forgive the story; it is finally the narrator’s charm—her ingenuousness—that saves it. Indeed, Davies is frequently at his best with either children or first-person narration.
It is true that the representational loss of a child’s innocence and trust via the pulling of a baby tooth can be ponderous in the hands of a less skillful storyteller, but Davies’s strongest suit is his ability to let the subtle details speak for a larger truth, as in the girl’s observation of lipstick traces on the assistant’s face mask. This then triggers the comment, “[t]here was no make up at home since my mother left.”
The more obviously autobiographical story in this collection is “How to Be an Expatriate,” in which the author departs from a traditionally straightforward narration, opting instead for more of a directive. It begins: “Go to America. You love the books, the TV shows, the movies. Tell people you’re tired of being a tourist and you want to live in a foreign country for a few months.” “You” then tell your parents it is only for one year to get a...
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