A Bestiary by Lily Hoang (2016)
Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor
From its opening line, A Bestiary interrogates and subverts myth. “Once upon a time—,” author Lily Hoang writes, “shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” From there readers are thrust into Hoang’s world, a world both deeply personal and achingly universal.
The acclaimed collection, which won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2015 Essay Collection Competition, reads like pastiche, collage, glimpse memory. Its form follows in the tradition of works by Jenny Offill, Mary Robison, and David Markson, works which play with fragmentation and white space while eschewing a traditional narrative arc. Hoang’s contribution to the form comes via the power of nonfiction, the resounding, undeniable ring of truth—of Hoang’s truth.
Throughout A Bestiary, various motifs are interwoven, both in individual sections and throughout the work as a whole. Loss, friendship, divorce, body image, ambition, the writer’s life, assimilation—it is the culmination of these motifs, and the nuances of meaning they accumulate, that gives the collection its power. The white space separating each section invites readers to consider the connections between them, the invisible thread that completes the web of not just Hoang’s experiences, but those of us all.
Hoang draws on myths from Ovid to Vietnamese folklore to Hans Christian Anderson. At times she refers to herself as the Little Match Girl standing outside her own life, salivating over “all that is not [hers].” Elsewhere, she creates an alternate mythology through a character she calls Other Lily. This alter-ego lives life perfectly, altruistically, and above all in accordance with her parents’ wishes. Hoang writes, “Other Lily doesn’t fail at marriages, and her husband is Vietnamese. He respects her too.” Yet this is one fairy tale Hoang rejects outright, stating, “Face the facts: There is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.”
Toward the end of this stunning collection, Hoang admits, “I have tangled the fairy tales I write with my life.” What is the purpose of myth if not to trace, to explain, to validate? Like the best of literary nonfiction, A Bestiary does not pretend to offer answers. Rather, it invites readers to step back from the chaos of a life, to see it for what it is, and to stand in awe rather than despair.
Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.