A fablelike tale set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam offers intrigue, revenge, a treasure map, and undying love, in a sprawling confection from memoirist Nguyen (The Unwanted, 2000).
At seven, Dan Nguyen (loosely based on the author’s grandfather) becomes married to Ven, twenty years his senior, poor, illiterate, and essentially sold into marriage-cum-nannyhood to care for her young husband. Though first wife to the heir of the Nguyen fortune, Ven finds herself serving, as tradition dictates, Dan’s three mothers and working in the rice fields. When Dan’s father and his first two wives are beheaded for treason, Ven hatches a plan of revenge that will allow her young husband to regain the family name and fortune. The death of Master Nguyen was the plot of the greedy town magistrate, who hopes to locate the Nguyen buried treasure—half of the map showing its location was tattooed on Master Nguyen’s back. As the evil magistrate searches for the other half, wrongly told it’s tattooed on young Dan’s back, Ven decides the safest place to hide him is in the magistrate’s own house. She sells him, and he becomes the slave/companion of the magistrate’s granddaughter, Tai May. The two grow up, they fall in love, and Dan loses all interest in exacting revenge on Tai May’s family. When the lovers are separated, Dan flees to the capital, where he becomes the royal embroiderer. From there, the tale wanders down many paths, giving a broader picture but weakening the reader’s attachment to Dan and Tai May, who become just two more figures in the ongoing story. That, along with occasional overblown prose, weakens an old-fashioned romance of Vietnam.
Trying a bit too hard for a broad-sweeping majesty, Nguyen’s first fiction works best when confined to the more intimate aspects of its character’s lives.