Book review: How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

From Goodreads

In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at homing in on moments like this — moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feeling that push us right up against the limits of language.

The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. A failed boxer discovers what it truly means to be a champion when he starts painting nails at his sister’s salon. A young woman tries to discern the invisible but immutable social hierarchies at a chicken processing plant. A mother coaches her daughter in the challenging art of worm harvesting.

In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is one of those books where I have not much to say because it’s just so good. Each review of the stories are “this was good and well-written” because that’s what this collection is: good and well-written. I cannot recommend it enough.

Here are some very mini reviews of the stories in this collection:

  • How to Pronounce Knife: 4.5 stars; very short, clever, and to the point
  • Paris: 4 stars; thought this story was overall fine but it had this quote [insert screenshot] which really just got me
  • Slingshot: 4 stars; very strong story; I loved the narrator and her relationship with her much younger neighbour; they both felt like real people, and this story had such a great tone
  • Randy Travis: 4 stars; another well-written, interesting story; I loved reading about this Laotian mom and her obsession with Randy Travis
  • Mani Pedi: 4 stars; I really enjoyed this story about a boxer-turned-nail manicurist
  • Chick-A-Chee!: 4.5 stars; such a cute story
  • The Universe Would be So Cruel: 5 stars; idk why but this story about a printer and wedding invitations really tugged at my heartstrings
  • Edge of the World: 5 stars; this story made me really sad but in the way that a good story does
  • The School Bus Driver: 4 stars; this one was also sad, but again, so good
  • You are So Embarrassing: 4 stars; this was such a good story; the characters managed to be so complex despite being such a short story 
  • Ewwrrrkk: 3 stars; this is the first story I consider to be fine; I ultimately just didn’t feel anything about it
  • The Gas Station: 3.5 stars; I enjoyed this one, just not as much as the other stories
  • A Far Distant Thing: 3.5 stars; this was a short, cute story about two girls during their childhood; it was less a story and more a series of anecdotes, hence the slightly lower rating
  • Picking Worms: 4 stars; this story was heartbreaking and fantastic

All in all, this is an incredibly well-written collection, and I will be keeping an eye out for Thammavongsa’s other work.

But those are just my thoughts! Have you read this one? What did you think? Let me know!

Ally xx


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