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Originally published Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 4:03 AM

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‘In the Country:’ stories of Manila, Bahrain and NYC

Mia Alvar’s magnificent story collection “In the Country” draws on the author’s life experiences in her home country of the Philippines and in the expatriate communities of Bahrain and New York City.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘In the Country: Stories’

by Mia Alvar

Knopf, 368 pp., $25.95

Debut story collections don’t come much better than this.

In the eight complex tales and one ambitious novella of “In the Country,” Filipina-American author Mia Alvar proves herself a tough, sophisticated writer with a canny empathy for the quandaries that confront her intricately layered characters. Her stories are set in Manila (where she was born), Bahrain (where she grew up) and New York City (where she lives).

Right from the opening tale, “The Kontrabida,” you feel you’re in expert hands.

Its narrator is a New York hospital pharmacist who returns to his native Manila to help his mother care for his dying father (whom he despises). He believes his shopkeeper mother needs rescue from her ailing, demanding, once-abusive husband. Still, to the reader’s eye, she seems pretty feisty — and, by story’s end, she proves more resourceful than her son ever imagined.

Here and elsewhere, Alvar uses local detail to potent effect. When the son offers a hand in his mother’s store, he gets a startling reminder of the world he came from: “It was a way of shopping I had completely forgotten: egg by egg, cigarette by cigarette, people spending what they earned in a day to buy what they would use in the next.”

Alvar’s detail is just as fine in “A Contract Overseas,” in which a gifted student needs all the financial support she can get to obtain an education. Her older brother — charming, generous, but without much rein on his libido — is her closest ally. To help her out, he finds work, like thousands of his countrymen, in Saudi Arabia. But his move has consequences no one foresees.

“Legends of the White Lady,” by contrast, is a satirical romp set in the fashion world and given an “Alice in Wonderland” twist. In dire emotional and financial disarray, but with her skewered sense of humor intact, Alice Anders, an American model with a “sunny, cornfed look,” takes a jeans-ad gig in Manila that may well be her last. There, she confronts a personal ghost while also becoming fixated on a local story about a “supposedly haunted” street in Quezon City.

Alice’s wry take on the rigors of modeling (“It was important not to eat, of course, but important also not to faint or get lightheaded in the middle of a job”) is reason enough to give this tale a read.

Alvar’s Bahrain-set stories — “The Miracle Worker” and “Shadow Families” — are more bittersweet in nature as they evoke the disorienting nature of a prosperous expatriate existence (“We wanted for nothing, and none of it was ours”), while her closing novella, “In the Country,” painfully illuminates the hazardous links between the personal and the political under the Marcos dictatorship.

The novella’s main characters, a hospital nurse and her journalist husband, have opposite ways of reacting to their country’s turmoil. Although Alvar’s time-scrambling narrative scheme is sometimes tricky to follow, her character detail is shrewd and the dilemmas that husband and wife face are urgent.

The story ponders how much abuse you can take from your country before you give up on it. In refraining from offering any easy answers, Alvar ends her magnificent collection on a powerful note.

Michael Upchurch:

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