In dissident Huong’s latest fiction set in postwar Vietnam (Beyond Illusions, 2001, etc.), a woman’s veteran husband, presumed dead, returns after a 14-year absence.
Mien leads an idyllic life in the rural village of Mountain Hamlet. Her second husband, Hoan, is a successful plantation owner and merchant who adores her and their son, Hanh. One day, however, Mien’s first husband, Bon, who left to go to war shortly after their marriage, turns up on the doorstep of Mien’s beloved house. His wartime ordeal has left Bon shattered, and the villagers, Communist administrators, and her own conscience pressure Mien into leaving Hoan and going back to live with Bon in his decrepit shack. (Mien never learns that Bon had married a Laotian woman during his wanderings.) Complicating matters is Bon’s sister Ta, a shiftless nymphomaniac with a brood of children who steal Bon’s meager possessions and food. The story alternates among Mien, Bon and Hoan as it recounts, in disjointed sections, Mien’s futile effort to readjust to the repellent, needy Bon, Bon’s horrific war experience (including an agonizing trek with the corpse of his beloved sergeant) and Hoan’s descent into a sordid world of urban prostitutes with a Mephistophelean friend as a guide. Lush description—a bit too metaphor-replete—makes the Vietnamese flora, fauna and cuisine enticingly real. Bon, aided by a coffee aphrodisiac, impregnates Mien. Though Mien, who still returns to her old home by day to care for her son, does not want to have the child, she gives birth to a deformed, stillborn infant, possibly as a result of Bon’s exposure to Agent Orange or her own attempts to induce a miscarriage. Despite much interior musing on matters of destiny and compulsion, the characters’ behavior often seems arbitrary and unmotivated. A provisionally happy ending redeems the principals, except for Bon, whose personal terrain will remain unpopulated: hence the title.
Rambling but fascinating foray into little-charted territory: the trauma wrought by the Vietnam War on its “winners.”