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by Eric Nguyen

Pub Date: May 4th, 2021
ISBN: 9780593317952
Publisher: Knopf

In this decades-spanning novel, a family of Vietnamese refugees makes a home in New Orleans.

Hương, who’s pregnant, arrives in New Orleans in 1978 disoriented and overwhelmed but clear on one thing: She must get in touch with Công, her husband, who was inexplicably left behind when she and their young son boarded the boat that carried them away from Vietnam and the encroaching Communist regime. As she, her son, and her new baby settle into the Versailles Arms, an apartment building on a polluted bayou populated entirely by Vietnamese refugees, she sends letter after letter to their old addresses in Vietnam and constantly replays the moment of their unexpected parting in her head. “How had Công’s hand slipped? she kept asking herself. That was the only explanation. The only possible one.” It’s only when Công sends her a brief postcard back—“Please don’t contact me again” is the jist of it—that denial gives way to grief and a steely resolve to protect her two sons, no matter what. Over the following years, the novel moves fluidly among each of the family members’ perspectives: Tuấn, her elder son, grows from a boy gentle with animals to a teenager trying to prove his toughness to the members of a Vietnamese American gang called the Southern Boyz. Bình—or Ben, as he insists on being called, never having known Vietnam—loves to read, slowly realizes that he’s gay, and eventually embarks on a transoceanic voyage of his own. Hương begins dating a kind car salesman named Vinh, but all three family members are haunted by Công’s absence. Hương tells the boys early on that their father is dead, a lie that plants the seeds for familial rupture later on. Debut author Nguyen movingly portrays the way adopted homes can become as cherished and familiar as ancestral ones (Hương on New Orleans: “She realized this had become her city, the place she lived but also a place that lived in her”) but also the truth that new loves can never quite heal old wounds. Seeing her sons, so like their father, growing away from her, Hương thinks: “It’s always like she’s losing him again—to the world, to life, to fate.”

An engrossing, prismatic portrait of first- and second-generation Vietnamese American life.