>> Recently reread this one and am reposting the review.<<
This remarkable story is classified as memoir but I shelved it with novels as well because it reads like a novel. Either way it is finely crafted and thoroughly engaging. Writing in first-person as his father, Andrew tells the story of his father's life in Vietnam in chapters shifting back and forth in time, primarily between World War II and the American War. In the 1970s the family moved to America, where Andrew was raised. The book's dedication is written by his father.
The Pham family are wealthy landowners from the Red River Delta who lose everything in the communist takeover of North Vietnam, and the tales of struggling to keep family and country together are seamlessly interwoven. Always there is war, always, and it is war in their own back yard. But the intimacies and intricacies of family life go on and give this book its great heart and much soul. And war or no, this is a beautiful country and culture, and the story is bright with evocative detailing. The brilliant narrative language -- whether plain-spoken or poetic -- always suits the storytelling.
Here are some favorite passages, and I could include many more.
"I waited for her on the market fringe amid peanut roasters, pork-bun steamers, fruit-women with baskets of tiny peaches and blood-dark plums, flower-maids with packs of incense sticks and altar bundles of carnations and daffodils. Wrapped in sweaters and scarves, schoolgirls with rosy cheeks gathered around a vendor who sold fried dough fritters, hot from a bubbling oil vat. People bantered, rattling off quick words with a lilt that reminded me of the Central Highlanders."
"Every minor failure ignited Father's temper like a hornet's nest. I became so nervous in front of him I moved like a wooden puppet, incapable of walking, talking or eating like a normal boy. 'Try harder.' 'Yes Father.' I went in once more. The water had turned as ominous and dark as pitch. Against my limbs, it was as light as air. I flapped my arms but fell into the depths. My lungs burned. Looking up from below, the sunlight was gentle, the sky luminous, forgiving. I felt Chau's hand on my arm. We were rising. Then I was flopped onto the pier gasping, vomiting. I blinked the water from my eyes. Father was already walking away. He couldn't bear to look in my direction."
"The battles, the bombs, the highway ambushes, the countryside insurgency, the draft cycles, and the ever-mounting casualties had become the ebbs and flows of a long, long war. We never expected victory -- our leaders were too corrupt for that -- and yet defeat never entered our minds. We convinced ourselves that the ever-present, powerful Americans would never desert us. We had become too dependent, lazy, blind, and selfish to save ourselves."
"We were losing our fortunes, our ancestral fiefdoms. First sons, we would be lords and barons no more. Side by side, we hammered down the impossibly straight highway, throttles wide open, engines howling . . . In youth, motion was everything. We roared through the sunset, unimpeded. The flaming sky turned inky, but we pressed onward, it mattered not where. Behind us, the graves of our mothers, the homes of our forefathers, the fishponds of our childhood, the famine, the wars, the vulgar legionnaires, the soldiers and their whores, my dumpling-cheeked girl. The farther we went, the easier it became. The twilight wind watered my eyes. Something within shattered. So much to lose, and yet before us, all the unlived years of our lives . . ."