A woman raised in a Vietnamese military camp must reclaim her identity in this debut novel.
In 1997, when she's 7, the unnamed narrator is taken to a military camp where her mother, a reform-minded energy consultant, is hiding from her political enemies. There, the girl forms relationships that will shape the rest of her life. Her mother, engrossed in her mission of bringing electricity to Vietnam, alternately ignores her and berates her. A young soldier assigned to protect the mother and daughter offers the girl emotional support and a nurturing, stable presence. But the girl’s most intense relationship is with a friend she refers to only as “the little girl,” who is being sexually abused by her father. The narrator happily participates in her friend’s fantasies: “My life depended on whatever imagined role the little girl gave me.” But a rift forms between the girls when the narrator, now 13, is abruptly whisked to the U.S. In 2012, the narrator works in a cafe in New York and constructs facsimiles of her past relationships: She follows a man who reminds her of her soldier, moves into his apartment building, and befriends him. And she falls into an intense, erotically tinged relationship with a woman named Lilah. “I stared at [Lilah’s] back, her narrow and boyish hips, and wondered what the little girl might look like as a woman.” The narrator agrees to become a surrogate mother for Lilah and her husband, Jon, a decision that ultimately leads her back to Vietnam to confront her past. The novel is an exploration of the way people co-opt others for their own ends, and it’s satisfying when the narrator finally gains clarity on the way her life has been warped to reinforce fantasies, both her own and other people's. But the story is filled with clumsy melodrama, with the prose trending a deep, bewildering purple: “The acme of all love was abandonment, the only point at which we would fulfill the promise of immortality, to persist in our love for those who are absent, into oblivion.”
An intriguing premise marred by awkward pacing and an overwrought style.