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THE SEA OF TREES by Yannick Murphy

THE SEA OF TREES

By Yannick Murphy

Pub Date: May 14th, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-85012-6
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

 Murphy's (Stories in Another Language, 1987) debut novel is a vivid and often powerful, although almost as often curiously perfunctory, girl's-eye saga of a wildly endangered life in the Far East during and after WW II. It's 1942, and Tian (short for Christiane) tells about being held in a Japanese prison camp in Kontum, Indochina, along with her Chinese father Yeu, her French mother Marcelle, and her dear beloved nanny, teacher, and caretaker--``my amah.'' Torture, fear, murder, and hunger are constant realities (Yeu escapes temporarily to try to join forces with the Montagnards; Marcelle, dreaming of her absent husband, gives birth to her second daughter) before liberation by the Chinese in 1945 sends the family first by foot to Saigon, then by train to Shanghai and the splendidly rich house there that was once home. Not only, however, is Shanghai in ruins, but it's being taken over by the Communists (shown as demonically cruel), whom the once-moneyed family must by necessity flee. Tian's father joins the nationalist army while Tian goes by ship with the others back to Saigon--where another entire novel seems to unfold as the spunky Tian, turning 16, single-handedly supports her family (by translating for the French as they torture Vietnamese prisoners), nurses her mother through typhoid, flies ahead to Biarritz (Marcelle's hometown) to make contact with ``Uncle Robert'' in order that the others can follow. More is still to come before this oddly meandering tale's end, but along the way, and amid the horror, are indisputable sources of pleasure--the droll wisdom of the comically unflappable amah, Marcelle's undying dream of dancing elegantly with her missing husband again, the horse in Saigon that decides to move indoors, then stands looking out a window even after the house itself is ruined. An indefatigably forward-going if often poetic story of girlhood and family amid war, terror, loss--and sometimes luck.