A magical child pulled from her mother’s coffin observes and embodies Vietnam’s tragic 20th-century history.
Born in Saigon, Barry—an award-winning poet—offers a mesmerizing vista of Vietnam’s recent past. Her small cast of characters, several of whom are gifted with surreal abilities, takes us from the rubber plantations of the French colonial era, through the American firebombing campaigns and the genocide in nearby Cambodia to the re-education camps. At the heart of the story is Rabbit, a girl who can hear and communicate with the war dead: “They call to me and they tell me things and I say, I hear you.” Mysteriously plucked from her mother’s grave, she's raised by a substitute family that includes, intermittently, her father, Tu, a Vietcong soldier, but also a spectrally beautiful woman named Qui whose eternally lactating breasts revive Rabbit when she's drained by contact with the spirit world. After the U.S. withdraws from the war, the group joins the flood of refugees heading south and later becomes boat people on a voyage filled with mysterious events and extreme dangers. Rescued from the ocean, sent to a re-education camp and then released, Rabbit eventually becomes renowned for her ability to uncover and ease the passing of the newly dead, including ethnically cleansed minorities and the victims of massacres that are denied by Hanoi. Rabbit’s intuition will endanger her, but her contact with the appalling events of the past cannot be suppressed: “The simple act of someone hearing them, an acknowledgement, and then they can go wherever it is they go.”
While Barry’s beautiful, transporting novel sometimes verges on the opaque, it pays resonant tribute to the uncounted dead below the surface of a convulsed nation.