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'Last Of Her Name' Urges Readers: Only Connect

The title story of Mimi Lok's short story collection, Last of Her Name, opens with Karen, a 12-year-old British girl, lying battered on the floor of her bedroom. She's attempted to recreate a stunt from her favorite martial-arts television program, but failed to intuit the role that special effects played in the scene. "It seemed so effortless, so elegant," Lok writes. "How was Karen supposed to know that her slight, ninety-pound self would be enough to send the wardrobe crashing to the floor?"

For Karen, the show is an escape, especially after she's viciously attacked by a schoolmate on her way home one afternoon. "She daydreams about being a noble warrior, flying over trees with blades flashing, transcending laws of gravity and unburdened by daily oppressions. ... She tries to imagine another version of herself, a warrior self, with the strength and daring to strike him down." The attack and its aftermath lead to a special kind of bonding with her mother, an immigrant from Hong Kong who also had to learn young how to be tough.

Like all the stories in Last of Her Name, it's a beautiful and perceptive look at the connections we make — and fail to make — with family, friends and strangers. Lok's literary debut is among the strongest of the year, thanks to her excellent writing and uncanny ability to create complex characters with the same stubborn flaws as real people.

In "The Wrong Dave," a young London architect receives an email from a "drunk, interesting" woman he met briefly while he was visiting Hong Kong. "He doesn't, in fairness, know if she is still drunk, or even interesting, but since that is how she appeared to him the first and only time they met ... he still only thinks of her as drunk and interesting," Lok writes.

He knows instantly that the woman meant the email to go to someone else named Dave, but he can't help writing back, starting a correspondence that he keeps hidden from his fiancée. He fantasizes about leaving his intended for the mysterious woman about whom he knows very little; he knows he's being irrational, but finds himself drawn to her nonetheless. The story is a perceptive look at how the human need to connect sometimes leads us to make fictionalized, idealized characters out of real people.

Connection is also at the heart of "Bad Influence," perhaps the collection's most successful story. It follows Mayling Chan, a San Diego patent attorney who's contacted out of the blue by her brother, Nelson, who left his family's home to travel the world, and hasn't been in touch with them in years. Mayling agrees to meet up with the sibling she has both resented and grudgingly admired: "Mayling used to think of him as a magician, able to alchemize the sad, angry air around the dinner table into embarrassed smiles or eruptions of unexpected laughter, in a way that she never could.

Over an evening of dinner, drinks and weed, the siblings try to reconnect with each other; Mayling is unable to hide her affection for her brother, in spite of the bitterness she feels over the pain he's caused her and her parents: "Nelson ... wouldn't know beyond a vague, romantic notion the true extent of the wounds he had made. And in that moment, enveloped in the roar of the ocean, Mayling decided that it was wrong to tell him. He hadn't earned it." It's a gorgeous story that perfectly portrays the fraught relationships between siblings who could never quite see eye to eye.

'Last of Her Name' doesn't feel at all like a debut book; Lok writes with the self-assuredness of a literary veteran and the insight of someone who's spent a lifetime studying how humans interact.

The collection ends with "The Woman in the Closet," a heartbreaker of a novella about an elderly Hong Kong woman named Granny Ng. She lived with her feckless son and cruel daughter-in-law until they decided to move her into a retirement home with a reputation for elder abuse. "Granny Ng's greatest fear had once been that, the older she got, the more likely it was that she would be forgotten," Lok writes. "Her second greatest fear was to be a burden, though that was sometimes the only guarantee of being remembered."

Unable to bear the thought of languishing in a subpar care facility, Granny Ng makes her home in a series of homeless camps before impulsively breaking into a stranger's home and taking up residence in his closet. She remains there undetected for a year, cooking and cleaning for the young man, who assumes the meals that he finds waiting for him are the work of his housekeeper. The ending is brutal, and feels like a warning: When we give into selfishness, Lok seems to say, we risk destroying what makes us human.

Last of Her Name doesn't feel at all like a debut book; Lok writes with the self-assuredness of a literary veteran and the insight of someone who's spent a lifetime studying how humans interact. It's a gorgeous collection that urges us to do our best to connect with one another — the alternative, as some of Lok's more unfortunate characters demonstrate, is oblivion.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.