Book review: Portable Curiosities | Julie Koh

Please allow me to introduce you to your new overlord, Julie Koh, who shall take over the world, one short story at a time.

Usually, I am a little underwhelmed by short story collections, but ‘Portable Curiosities’ lives up to what it promises on the packet. For a week, each coffee break, lunchtime read, and Sunday sneak-in left me bemused, shocked, befuddled, and/or cringing—but always in awe, with bite-sized stories that are sensational, smart, and ever-so-beautifully penned.

With a little bit of absurdism, paranormal, and magical realism, and sometimes a step towards thriller, horror, or grotesque, Koh tells the most non-fictional of things. I became invested in every story within the first few lines. Once a story took hold, I couldn’t put it down.

Koh—who was born in Sydney to Chinese Malaysian parents—tackles the big issues, from misogyny to capitalism to human utility and ageism, and gives some of the sharpest social comments.

‘The Fantastic Beasts’ was my initial favourite, although it felt as soft as a smack in the face, equal parts humour and misery, but all parts reverberating.

‘Civility Place’ became my next new favourite. The machination of capitalism and the corporate world has been done before, but I’ve never been so enthralled by the sense of entrapment, aimless futility, and resignation of the individual within the machine. I still get chills, just thinking about it.

‘Cream Reaper’ was revered by my book club friends. There are no words for this story—although she uses all the words (which you will recognise from the news and reality TV). How Koh manages to comment on so much with a story about ice cream, I have no idea.

Reading her bio, I could see how much of the personal may have informed her fictional work. I, for one, am glad she left corporate law behind.

‘Portable Curiosities’ is easily the best satire I’ve read in a long-time. I know the year is but a baby, but I’m calling it: this will be my standout book for 2018.

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