This acclaimed novel reveals the life of a Vietnamese family in America through the knowing eyes of a child finding her place and voice in a new country.
In 1978 six refugees—a girl, her father, and four “uncles”—are pulled from the sea to begin a new life in San Diego. In the child’s imagination, the world is transmuted into an unearthly realm: she sees everything intensely, hears the distress calls of inanimate objects, and waits for her mother to join her. But life loses none of its strangeness when the family is reunited. As the girl grows, her matter-of-fact innocence eddies increasingly around opaque and ghostly traumas: the cataclysm that engulfed her homeland, the memory of a brother who drowned and, most inescapable, her father’s hopeless rage.
While the novel brilliantly illuminates its unlikely troika, what the narrative leaves out is just as striking. It seems significant that descriptions of the Vietnam War barely figure in the story and that American characters remain fuzzy, undifferentiated and impressionistic. In this way, the relationship of this engaging and original novel to more conventional American narratives of Vietnam may be thought to be like a photographic negative: What's white is dark, what's dark is white, and the image is strange and mesmerizing. — Peter Zinoman