A first novel from noted activist Duong, whose work is currently banned in Vietnam, is as disturbingly powerful in its depiction of totalitarianism as her later were to be (Memories of a Pure Spring, 2000, etc.).
Though her prose is at times cloyingly lyrical, Duong’s story itself is a grim reminder of the price tyranny exacts. She offers memorable portraits of 1980s Hanoi in introducing three characters who all face moral crises about the way they live. Too subtle to make their dilemma a polemic, Duong is also too honest to discount the political implications of their situations, and, though the themes she raises are universal, they have an immediate and compelling relevance for Vietnam. Beautiful and idealistic literature teacher Linh no longer loves her husband Nguyen, a once-idolized former professor who’s now a hack journalist producing what his editors want. While ashamed of his compliance, he sees no alternative if he is to provide a good living for Linh and their daughter Huong Ly. Unhappy and restless, Linh drifts into an affair with noted composer Tran Phuong, a married man and notorious womanizer currently out of favor with the regime. Tran seems to Linh everything Nguyen is not, but Tran, who longs for the perks of acceptance (“the white Moscovic car gliding across the courtyard”), is prepared to pay the necessary price. Linh is penalized by the school authorities for leaving her husband and having an affair; Nguyen, meanwhile, still deeply in love with Linh, faces a moral dilemma at work: whether to write the truth about a senior official accused of raping young women or keep quiet. As all three wrestle with their consciences, Linh, whose youthful idealism has been tempered by reality, understands that life endures in spite of “the ruins. In spite of the lies.”
One more eloquent plea for freedom and tolerance from an accomplished writer and conscience of her country.