Lan Cao's first novel derives its title from Vietnamese monkey bridges, the delicate, fragile structures that span the narrow and wide rivers, the deltas and water-soaked rice paddies of the lush Vietnamese countryside. To cross monkey bridges requires agility and, more importantly, a sort of faith, an ability to "set aside the process itself in favor of seeing the act whole and complete. It could be dangerous, of course, but rivers had to be crossed, so why not pretend [to] do it with instinct and ease?" It is precisely this sort of balancing act that is required of Cao's protagonists, Mai Nguyen and her mother, Thanh, Vietnamese refugees who arrive in America to negotiate a new life for themselves in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the tradition of Maxine Hong Kingston's classic The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck CLub, Cao's tale interweaves history, folktales, and cultural rituals, all the while probing the complex bond between Mai and the mother whose heart is irrevocably linked to a land and way of life that no longer exists. "The dreadful truth was simply this," a teenage Mai observes coolly in the book's opening chapter: "We were going through life in reverse....I would have to forgo the luxury of adolescent experiments and temper tantrums, so that I could scoop my mother out of harm's way and give her sanctuary."
The concept of sanctuary the lack of it and the Nguyens' valiant attempts to re-create itlies at the heart of this novel. America, we see through Thanh's baffled eyes, as she watches reruns of "The Bionic Woman" andstrugglesto understand the concept of a lawsuit, will never be her home, despite the makeshift community she has formed in the Falls Church, Virginia, neighborhood known as Little Saigon. Vietnam is the Eden Thanh longs to return to, even though she realizes that this particular Eden has already fallen. She is, after all, a farmer's daughter, a child of the earth, as uprooted and out of place in Falls Church as a banyan tree deprived of home soil. Yet Thanh harbors secrets that are deeper than the pain of her displacement. She has been scarredshe bears the mark physically, in splotches of what Mai believes are the remnants of a burn acquired in a kitchen fire decades earlier. But the scar is from fire of an entirely different sort, acquired in a much less prosaic fashion. It is only through reading the pages of her mother's diary that Mai discovers the multiple scars her motherand her mother's motherhave borne, the secrets that they have conspired to keep from her for fear that the ensuing karma would doom Mai to a similar fate.
Thanh's journals provide some of the most evocative writing in the novel. From her humble childhood in the tiny farming village of Ba Xuyen to her abrupt reversal of fortuneyears in an elite French convent school after she is suddenly adopted by Uncle Khan, the village's richest, most powerful landlordthey describe the Nguyen family's dramatic history. In passages describing the village holidays, particularly the festival of Tet, and in her recordings of how to successfully plant and tend rice fields, Thanh's writing (Cao's, in fact) catches fire. The beauty of her childhood home is rendered all the more poignant for the vivid descriptions of its destruction that come later:
[My daughter] has never known a rice field and the current of grace that runs through it like golden light. She has never known how it is farmed, how it is loved, how a bowl of rice is also a bowl of sweat, a farmer's sweat, a mother's sweat. If she were to ask me, I would tell herabout its beauty, the way it meanders across the land and carpets the horizon in a bright emerald... To know a rice field is to know the soul of Vietnam...
But it is precisely the soul of Vietnam that the teenage Mai struggles to shed. As Mai negotiates the entirely different minefield that contemporary America represents, her mother's attachments to the past and to ritual smack of obsession. Thanh, for example, is preoccupied by the idea of karma. She calls it "an ethical, spiritual chromosome, an amalgamation of parent and child." Mai, of course, wants nothing to do with karma. She wants, simply, to understand the mystery of her grandfather, who her mother claims failed to meet her at an appointed rendezvous the day they were airlifted out of Saigon. Thanh is frustratingly oblique when discussing him, and even Uncle Michael, an American GI her family had befriended during the war, turns silent when Mai presses him for information. Only in the journals does Mai discover the fate of her grandfather, unearthing at the same time the key to her mother's tortured psyche. Although some of the passages about the bond between Mai and Thanh can be cloying, by the end of the novel, the sentiment is almost earned. We conclude the novel with a profound, and profoundly sad, understanding of Thanh's haunted reticence and fear.
"Keep what you see behind your eyes, and save what you think under your tongue. Let your thoughts glow from within. Hide your true self," Mai's mother counsels her when they first arrive in America. Thankfully, Lan Cao has chosen the thoroughly American path of speaking her mind. This is a novel suffused with passion and grief for a lost way of life, and for the souls who, for lack of courage or time or inclination, failed to cross the delicate bridge to the future.
Sarah Midori Zimmerman is a writer and editor in New York City.