The Barnes & Noble Review
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.
In the past dozen years, fiction has certainly taught us that for Asian-Americans, being a daughter is no tea party. As if to hammer home the point, Lan Cao's Monkey Bridgewhich is being touted as the first novel by a Vietnamese-American about the immigrant experiencedepicts generational angst worthy of an Amy Tan novel.
Mai Nguyen, Cao's buttoned-up, adolescent narrator, shares the same preoccupations of the four daughters in The Joy Luck Club: making sense of a maddeningly enigmatic and strong-willed mother who's guarding an unsavory old-world secret. Fleeing Vietnam in 1975, just before U.S. troops evacuate Saigon, Mai and her mother arrive in Falls Church, Va., and must come to grips with each other and a community coping with the aftermath of war (the "American War," as the Vietnamese call it).
Navigating suburbia is no problem for Mai; she interprets the adventures of "The Bionic Woman" for her mother, learns English without a trace of an accent and uses psychology"the new American religion" to make her mother's seemingly outlandish demands appear kosher to American onlookers. Mai becomes her mother's mother in an alien culture: "We were going through life in reverse, and I was the one who would help my mother through the hard scrutiny of ordinary suburban life."
Comparisons to Tan don't reflect badly on Monkey Bridge, especially since Cao has a distinctive style that's subtle and engaging. But because the novel is so clearly autobiographical, I wished that Cao had abandoned her creaky literary devices and written a memoir. In the interests of creating a compelling narrative, Cao shamelessly leads the reader toward the soap-operatic revelation of Mai's mother's murky parentage. The sensationalism feels tacked on, while the well-chosen details are what gives the story its energy.
Cao excels at memorializing, conveying ironies in the simplest details. For instance, the Mekong Grocery, where Mai's mother works, becomes a meeting place for the American GIs of Falls Church who want to indulge their taste for Vietnamese delicacies and distaste for Jane Fonda. Cao also tells us that in Saigon women buy paper bags of canaries and hummingbirds and free them for the karma of doing a kind deed. And we learn that in Vietnamese, the word for "please" is "make good karma." ("Make good karma and pass the butter.") In "Monkey Bridge," it's the glimpses of Vietnamese-American culturenot the melodramathat left me wanting more.
An impressive debut.
The New York Times Book Review
A wonderfully written but unengaging first novel about a young Vietnamese refugee who, in 1975, is airlifted from Saigon and only later learns of her family's dark past.
Mai, whose family befriended Michael MacMahon, an American colonel in Saigon, comes to the States as a 13-year-old. After staying with the MacMahons for six months, she moves to Washington, D.C, joined there by her widowed mother. The two make their home in "Little Saigon," the years pass, Mai is soon fluent in English, and though mindful of her pastshe nostalgically recalls traditional myths and customsshe adjusts to the new country. Her mother doesn't, though, and a bad fall, followed by a disabling stroke, seems to push her even further into the past. Mai hears her talk fretfully in her sleep of her father, Baba Quan, who was to accompany her to the U.S. but never arrived at the agreed-upon rendezvous. Mai tries to contact him, but her mother is curiously discouraging. As Mai prepares to go to college, her mother seems happier, but the secret letters Mai finds her writing are less cheerful. While the letters at first retell old legends and beliefs and describe life in her native village, the last entries, her legacy to Mai, tell a darker and more complex story. Mai learns that her grandmother had been the landlord's concubine and he, not Baba Quan, was her grandfather; Baba Quan was actually a brutal, bitter man, and a Vietcong leader; moreover, her mother had been neglected by her intellectual husband and suffered many miscarriages. Convinced that she and the family have bad karma, Mai's mother actssuccessfullyto free her daughter so that she may have a "different heritage, an unburdenedpast."
Heartfelt evocations of a different time and place aren't enough here to give vigor to a beautifully rendered but disappointingly lifeless story of the Vietnamese American experience.