The ordeal of assimilation is the central subject of this unusually fragmented, always engrossing first novel from a Vietnamese writer now living in Texas.
It circles backward and forward in time, beginning in the early 1970s with the story of Tran, a woman journalist (and would-be novelist) who comes under suspicion as a staff member for an anti-government independent newspaper, and escapes (just prior to the fall of Saigon) to America with her two fatherless children. Relocated in California, Tran meets and marries Danish immigrant Hus Madsen, who fathers her third child, then awkwardly bears the burden of paternity after Tran’s death from tuberculosis—maintaining conflicted relationships thereafter with “his” son and daughters, renamed (respectively) Tim, April, and Beth. The bulk of the story traces each child’s experiences growing up American in and around northern California’s Sierra Nevadas. April (born Thuy) is the most introspective of the three, and some of Strom’s best moments occur in passages detailing April’s perpetual disorientation, crystallized when she returns to Vietnam at age 23, and realizes that “I don’t know what my name is anymore.” Strom also creates vivid sequences focused on April’s older brother (who clings to his birth name: Thien), a loner who works as an auto mechanic, drifting in and out of the anger and defensiveness bred by his clashes with “control freak” Hus; and on impulsive teenager Beth, whose baby steps toward rebellion and sexual freedom only confirm her realization that “I didn’t want to grow up.” Strom writes beautifully about adolescent solipsism and alienation, but her tale’s coherence is intermittently weakened by the absence of clear transitions among its nonsequential episodes (its odd structure is reminiscent of Larry Woiwode’s impressionistic family saga Beyond the Bedroom Wall).
Still, knowing characterizations and an aching sense of rootlessness and identity crisis make for an affecting and memorable debut.