‘Sour Heart’ is Sour and Sweet

Jenny Zhang’s short story collection, Sour Heart, deals with the most private physical aspects of being human: chewing, defecating, skin infections, body parts that remain a mystery to our young selves, and the uncomfortable world of sexually frustrated parents.

Each story focuses on Chinese immigrant families, whose struggles amid cramped quarters bring this physical realm to the forefront. Using a series of brilliantly candid (but not too precocious) young female narrators, Zhang captures the tension between immediate reality and intergenerational expectations.

Zhang could easily venture into sociological territory with this subject matter, but she instead prefers to pin it down in its most vulnerable and mundane contexts. A little girl’s brother swallows pennies when he’s old enough to know better. A 4th-grader’s sexually promiscuous peer pushes her friends beyond the point of comfort. Kids watch broke parents trick a megastore with false gadget returns.

As a result, the stories in Sour Heart feel glaringly real, if not masterfully Freudian. In that sense, it would be right at home next to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors.

Sour Heart serves up plenty of scenes that are sour indeed, on purpose. No subject matter is too dark, nor too bleak to be made poetic or funny. With this collection, Zhang positions herself as a major literary voice to watch.