Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.
– Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
A good book tells a story that keeps your attention and brings a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. But you find yourself walking away from a good book without giving it much more than a passing thought. It was a leaf on the wind whose beauty touched you for a moment and then faded from your memory as quickly as it came. But a great book? A great book seeps into your brain and imprints something. You don’t just feel emotion, you become deeply entrenched in that emotion. You aren’t just reading about a person and their experiences. You are living those experiences along side them, and you feel intimately their terror, their loss, and their triumph. You see with their eyes and feel with their skin in a truly visceral way. For a brief moment you can’t separate yourself from this person who only exists on a page but whose existence has become so vital to your own.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has created such a book. It’s greatness lies predominantly in a lyricism that immediately pulls the reader in and and won’t release them. Don’t get me wrong, I had to put this book down on some occasions. The events in this novel are horrifying. This is a family saga that spans The Vietnamese Land Reform from the years following WWII through the Vietnam War to the present. At one point I didn’t know if I could take anymore death, torture or starvation. But I see that as a testament to the power of this book. It cuts deep, and it should. What use is showing the horror of war if you don’t give an accurate glimpse into the truth of it? There’s no truth in delicacy. There’s only artifice, and artifice is a slap in the face to people who endured pain and suffering in order to bring a better tomorrow.
One thing Mai does expertly is crafting the perfect character. I deeply understood the love Guava’s Grandma had for her children and her children’s children. I felt her pain when she had to make sacrifices, even going so far as to leave them behind in the care of others to ensure they survived. I could imagine myself in that position, walking away from my children as my heart broke knowing it was the only choice I had. The terror of not knowing if I’d ever see them again. And I felt deeply her intense resolve to return to them and to provide the life that all children deserve, no matter how old they may grow or how far away they may be, both literally and figuratively. I could only aspire to be as brave and selfless in my own actions as this astounding woman. Though it was difficult to understand, I grew to know her heart enough to be able to accept and admire her capacity for forgiveness. Her faith was unshakable. Even at her darkest moments, she was still able to say, “as long as I have my voice, I am still alive.”
I realized that war was monstrous. If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again. – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Another impressive thing about this novel is that it doesn’t present a good or a bad when it comes to war. Beneath the surface is pain and desperation, good people and bad people making the only choices they feel they have to make. We all have the capacity for good and evil, and desperate times force us over a precipice. Which way we go depends upon whether we have the strength to do good or the will to do harm. Whether we are willing to fight to regain our own happiness or whether we seek to steal the happiness of others through cowardice.
This book is so infinitely beautiful and worthwhile despite the sheer heft of the weight it places on your soul. It’s one I will never forget.