4.5 out of 5: In World and Town, Gish Jen’s fourth novel, the small Vermont town of Riverlake isn’t quite sure how to interact with a troubled Cambodian family that moves into a trailer under the sponsorship of a local church. Hattie Kong, a 68-year-old widow grieving both her husband and her best friend, lives next to the newcomers and befriends their 12-year-old daughter, Sophy. To complicate matters, Hattie’s first love returns to town after a long absence. It is a tribute to Jen’s abilities as a writer that this novel tackles so many different themes—love, death, grief, friendship, family, community, religion, domestic abuse, drugs, alcoholism—and yet never feels messy or overextended.
Jen’s prose is both blunt and dense, as exemplified by the novel’s first few sentences:
Last week, a family moved in down the hill—Cambodian. They plan to build themselves a little house, people say. Hoping that the house will—ta daah!—become a home. Well, that’s not so simple, Hattie happens to know. But never mind; this is an age of flux. She, Hattie Kong, came from China; her neighbors from Cambodia; is there anyone not coming from somewhere?Jen’s writing has the satisfying heft of 9-grain bread, but it’s lightened with enough humor to avoid being overly weighty. The details of her characters’ lives and relationships are revealed slowly and obliquely. Jen leaves much unsaid, trusting in her readers to pay attention. Such writing rewards close and patient reading. World and Town is a masterful depiction of the world from the perspective of a small town.