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Tomb Sweeping by Alexandra Chang

Short stories

Tomb Sweeping

YEARLY LOOK-BACK

Once a year, we break our own rules and share a book from earlier in the year that wowed us.

by Alexandra Chang

Excellent choice

Excellent choice

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Quick take

Brimming with warmth and vibrancy, this beautiful debut collection of stories asks sharp questions about modern life.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, International

    International

  • Illustrated icon, Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Millenial

    Millennial

  • Illustrated icon, Techie

    Tech world

Synopsis

Compelling and perceptive, Tomb Sweeping probes the loyalties we hold: to relatives, to strangers, and to ourselves. In stories set across the US and Asia, Alexandra Chang immerses us in the lives of immigrant families, grocery store employees, expecting parents, and guileless lab assistants.

A woman known only to her neighbors as “the Asian recycling lady” collects bottles from the streets she calls home. A young college grad ponders the void left from a broken friendship. An unfulfilled housewife in Shanghai finds a secret outlet for her ambitions in an undercover gambling den. Two strangers become something more through the bond of mistaken identity.

These characters, adeptly attuned to the mystery of living, invite us to consider whether it is possible for anyone to entirely do right by another. Tomb Sweeping brims with remarkable skill and talent in every story, keeping a definitive pulse on loss, community, and what it means to feel fully alive.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Tomb Sweeping.

Tomb Sweeping

UNKNOWN BY UNKNOWN

I

When I’d gotten laid off, the managers said it had nothing to do with my performance. They had purchased a piece of software that could do my job at a thousand times the speed. There was no way I could compete, and they were very sorry. They offered me a month of severance for every year I had been at the company. Seven months of pay.

I had joined when I was still considered a young woman, twenty-seven, at the cusp of my late twenties. Now I was very much in my thirties, jobless, with nothing tying me to the place where I lived besides the one-bedroom apartment I rented that still had ten months on the lease. I wasn’t hurting for money yet, but I was bored and growing increasingly anxious. I suspected I should be doing more with my time than eating weed gummies and lying in bed binge-watching reality dating shows with heinous and hilarious names like Simp Island and From Stalker to Lover. The shows made me certain I would die alone. It wasn’t necessarily the most frightening thought, since I liked being alone, but it was the first time in my life that I had the time to meditate on my mortality, on how everything I had spent the last seven years of my life doing—focusing on my career, developing my independence, saving my money for some future better life—had been, ultimately, meaningless, and it stirred inside me feelings I had difficulty understanding, let alone managing.

Two months into unemployed life, a former coworker took pity on me. He texted to ask if I would be open to a monthlong house- and pet-sitting job for friends of his family, who were having a hard time finding somebody they could trust (and, I assumed, had the free time in their schedule). The only requirement: a video interview with the owners of the house. The work acquaintance suspected it was more a formality—he had already told them I was a perfect fit. I had been perceived as competent at my previous job. I listened, I didn’t fuss, I fixed other people’s mistakes.

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Why I love it

As a general rule, satisfying short story collections are the unicorns of the book world. So often they fall into the same traps: one story always feels too long, or they all start to blend together, or you’re wracked with frustration over a story’s inconclusiveness. Tomb Sweeping is a gorgeous, rich, moving antidote to all of these problems: a meticulously layered fifteen-course meal that left me sated and pondering life’s bigger questions.

Throughout these stories, we meet a vast array of characters, from a young woman holed up alone in an increasingly eerie mansion to a bored housewife who creates her own income stream in the form of an underground gambling ring. Each story does an exquisite job of building an entire world in just a few pages. As we travel the globe from the U.S. to China, Alexandra Chang captures the perfect tone for each tale: sometimes cheeky, sometimes yearning, but always deeply heartfelt and empathic.

This collection also does a brilliant job of illuminating the subtleties of societal expectations and seems to relish its characters’ moments of vulnerability and weirdness responding to these strict, so often unspoken guidelines. Chang manages to tackle the idea of what it means to be holistically satisfied—in life, in love—across time periods and tracks how much our relationships to happiness have changed the more our lives have become complicated by technology. Tomb Sweeping is that rare book that is better consumed in small bites, which is why it’s our look-back pick for 2023. I invite you to savor it.

Member ratings (4,792)

  • Lane H.

    Oakland, FL

    I enjoyed this book. Especially the stories “Li Phan” & “Flies.” It takes a lot for a book to make me cry but Flies especially is a reminder that life isn’t always good/bad, sometimes it’s just…life.

  • Sylvia M.

    Altamonte Springs, FL

    “Unknown by Unknown” and the titular story, “Tomb Sweeping,” are outstanding and I will be thinking about both for a long time. The rest of the collection doesn’t quite measure up, but worth reading.

  • Laura P.

    Durham, NC

    I really enjoyed this collection! There were a few stories that I didn’t “get” or that I would have liked to see developed further, but as a whole I found the stories insightful and thought provoking.

  • Hannah F.

    Little Rock, AR

    I surprisingly loved this! I’ve never been into short stories because I’m always left with wanting more, but these were WOW! I really sat and contemplated life after some of these. The writing is YES!

  • BethAnne M.

    Orlando, FL

    I loved these stories. Mostly about familial bonds, a lot about parents and children — but some about friends and colleagues too. Every one of them was deftly executed and sort of haunting in a way.

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