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Book review: Alexandra Chang’s Tomb Sweeping a blur of unmemorable characters in simple situations

Tomb Sweeping

By Alexandra Chang
Fiction/Ecco/239 pages/$21.24/Amazon SG (amzn.to/3Fpi3Kg)
2 stars

In spirit, Asian-American author Alexandra Chang’s collection of short stories resembles Celine Song’s film Past Lives (2023) – slow, tender in moments, focusing on the attritional effects of time and the paths not taken.

The stories presented are quiet, with nothing dramatic really happening. Characters reach their own little resolutions or find a compromised peace.

Lengthy psychological wranglings lead to them moving closer to their parents, or feeling bad about meeting an old acquaintance at a supermarket.

This “slice-of-life-ness” in itself is not a con, but with few exceptions, the same criticisms levelled at Past Lives can also be said of Chang’s stories – that they all end up feeling just a little too insubstantial and stretched out, with not nearly enough wit or wryness to be entertaining.

Measured as Chang’s writing is, the different plot lines begin to blend together and look like writing practice.

So they very well could be. This compilation has been collated from the author’s writing over nine years. Several have been published in magazines such as 3:AM Magazine and Harvard Review.

Chang’s characters are mostly Asian, though they live across the world, in Singapore, China and in the United States.

The relationships with their parents and their attendant obligations play a big part, as in Persona Development, about a pregnant woman who becomes obsessed with watching her parents through a house camera; or A Visit, when an estranged, elderly father drops in on his daughter.

The pursuit of material comfort is another major concern, not just in the form of the American dream but also in the cut-throat competitiveness of China.

Chang is lucid about the cost this imposes. In She Will Be A Swimmer, a beautiful, young girl is talked into marrying someone she is at best lukewarm about – a recurring theme. Here, Chang is just deft enough in the balancing of the bittersweet, and this is a tone she attempts for her stories of female travails.

To Get Rich Is Glorious sees a woman’s ambition leading to gambling in China and a stint in prison. She, too, still manages to find pride.

Chang is sympathetic, adding a rare meta-commentary that the book could perhaps use more of, asking: “If, at a young age, you feel like you can achieve anything, and then you realise along the way that you were living in a fantasy, how do you respond… If you’re born with a strength in spirit, is it fair to dampen it, and if not, how many lines made by others can you cross before you’ve crossed too many?”

There are perhaps two or three exceptions to the parade of forgettable characters, with two of them involving the characters’ trauma writ large into the environment to give the stories a layer of supernatural horror.

The better of the two is the opening salvo of Tomb Sweeping, titled Unknown By Unknown. A recently laid-off girl housekeeps for a wealthy couple in the mountains, but finds herself made sick by the house as she seeks to blend in with its walls.

There is a courageous open-endedness in its conclusion.The rest of the collection is rather too straightforward, too insistent on the step-by-step laying out of reasonableness for character study.

It may be the fault of the medium, but this is a volume begging for something more urgent to say.

If you like this, read: No Wonder, Women by Carissa Foo (Penguin SEA, 2023, $19.52, Amazon SG, go to amzn.to/3sniTE2), a short story collection by a Singaporean writer about women in love.



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