These seven stories are excellent examples of the kind of literature that emerges from creative writing courses. I don't mean that pejoratively. Nam Le writes through the characters, he lets them drive the plot and not vice versa, he shows and doesn't tell, he uses concrete images, he handles time-shifts with aplomb, and there are no spurious happy endings.
Le takes in an impressive range of character and setting: the title story is a harrowing account of what it's like to be 10 days adrift in a boat designed for 15 passengers with 200 refugees on board. The descriptions are painfully vivid, and the account of a child's death is one of the most moving things I have read in a long while. "Cartagena" tells of a 14-year-old Colombian hitman who is asked to take out his best friend. In "Meeting Elise", an ageing New York artist hopes to meet his estranged daughter, whom he hasn't seen for 17 years, on the same day that he's diagnosed with cancer.
Sometimes Le tries a bit too hard for the arresting word: trees that are "spastic with colour", a street that closes "like a wound". But overall, the word-choice is spot-on, and the prose is densely textured.