By Cecile Pin
Published March 2023
Usually I stay within my lane for what I read, and anyone who has followed me for any length of time knows it tends to be historical fiction (usually 19th century), mysteries/thrillers, and low fantasy. But this is the time of year when literature award long lists are being announced so this year, I’m trying to pick up some reads that I might not normally choose. (Thank you to Stargazer for posting the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. You can find that post from March here if you’re interested.)
This novel follows Anh and her younger brothers Minh and Thanh on their flight from Vietnam just after the close of the Vietnam War, through a resettlement camp in Hong Kong, and on to Great Britain as orphans. Through the years, Anh struggles to provide for her brothers, grieve the loss of her parents and other siblings, and find her own place in a new society. Anh gives up her own dreams to work a menial job, and is disappointed that her brothers aren’t living up to her parent’s expectations for them. But each sibling struggles to adapt without adult guidance, ultimately choosing their own path in life.
This novel starts with the best first line I’ve seen in a long time: There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation. If that doesn’t grab you and pull you into the story, I don’t know what will. The book is meticulously researched and hopefully, will open your eyes to an experience that most Westerners will never have to know. The story unfolds through Anh and, at time’s, her brother’s points of view, that of an unnamed narrator/researcher, and a few chapters from her youngest brother’s ghost. I loved how the practice of honoring their ancestors, as well as how that honor was received by the deceased, added to the overall flavor of the story – that of holding on to your traditions while also trying to assimilate into a new culture.
However, the multiple points of view also confused me. We have Anh, a few instances where her brothers chimed in (that I didn’t really feel was necessary), the narrator, the deceased, and a few chapters from a US soldier who fought in Vietnam. It made for a lack of cohesion in a fairly short novel. There was a lot of emphasis on the flight from Vietnam and early years in England, but then the story jumped to nearly the present and I was forced to play catch up, which is when I lost my connection to characters. I realize it was necessary to reveal the narrator and while that did lead to a nice “a ha!” moment, I’d already lost the early flow of the story.
Final words: A beautifully written and moving novel that unfortunately, didn’t quite come together for me in the end.
3.5/5 stars ⭐⭐⭐+
Until next time, thank you for visiting.