The Tapestries: A Novel

The Tapestries: A Novel

by Kien Nguyen


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The Tapestries: A Novel by Kien Nguyen

- The novel was inspired by the life of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam.- A selection of Minnesota's Talking Volumes book club.- A brilliantly textured historical romance that is sure to be a favorite with reading groups throughout the country.- Hardcover ISBN: 0-316-28441-6

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316735605
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 10/15/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,222,753
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Tapestries

By Kien Nguyen

Back Bay Books

Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73560-4

Chapter One

The Wedding

During the winter months, the Perfume River was chilly, especially at dawn. The morning of Dan Nguyen's first wedding was no exception. While the sun was still hidden, its early rays reached from behind the Ngu Binh Mountain, stretching pale-yellow fingers over the sky. Thin clouds wafted by, and the wind whipped up whirlpools of mist. Damp tendrils drifted over the jungle of oak trees that climbed the steep mountainside and were lost against the horizon. Along the side of the river, a strip of land still lay in darkness. From afar, it looked like the back of a crocodile floating in the water. A few hundred feet away, a sampan moved slowly upstream. Both sides of the boat were painted with red resin from the lacquer tree and highlighted with gold trim in large rectangular patterns-the design reserved for weddings.

At the vessel's stern, a white-haired man with stooped shoulders sat on the floor. His gnarled hands clenched an oar, and he leaned heavily into its strokes. The man seemed lost in his own world. His eyes, hidden beneath the rim of a torn conical hat, focused on the water. The faded blue peasant shirt on his back was tattered, exposing his bony ribs. Next to him hung a red lantern that illuminated a short stretch of river ahead. The faint sound of the oar moving the water echoed against the silence.

Behind the old man, in the center of the sampan, was a small cabin with a roof built of red-lacquered bamboo stalks lashed together with palm fronds. Across its entrance hung a pink silk screen on which a canary-yellow dragon entwined with its feminine mate, an equally gracious phoenix. Custom dictated that the bride must be concealed from sight. She sat behind the silk barrier, careful not to make a sound while the boat rocked to the helmsman's gentle rhythm. Just as the sun appeared from behind the purple mountain, the old man guided his bridal sampan toward land. Sunlight broke through the clouds into thousands of tiny golden pennies. The old man squinted, searching the shoreline for a place to dock. He did not have to look far.

Just ahead, where the ground extended into the water to form a long, narrow wharf, twenty people from the groom's family stood in a single file. Most of them wore the ao dai, the ceremonial garb reserved for festivities such as this. The costumes were similar for both men and women: a tunic, made out of silk or satin, with a long skirt separated at the waist into two panels, front and back. The men wore their robes over white pants, while the women wore theirs over black-a more subservient color.

The wedding party had prepared the landing site by hanging strings of firecrackers over the branches of the tamarind trees. Upon the arrival of the sampan, the two oldest men began the ceremony by burning purified joss sticks. Then they ignited the firecrackers. The red, petal-like missiles burst into the morning air, stirring flocks of sparrows from their sleep. They flapped their gray wings among the dark branches, adding their screeches to the din. The deafening sound of the explosives was believed to banish evil spirits as the groom's family prepared to accept their new daughter-in-law.

With the help of two young servants, the old man stepped off his boat. He took off his hat and bowed to the elders. His gesture was mechanical yet courteous. He focused his eyes on the crimson debris of the fireworks on the ground. After the last few scattered booms, silence returned to the riverbank, and even the fog seemed to settle back into its original pattern, draped over the oak trees. From the greeting party, one man marched forward. He was about forty-five years old, and his deep-set eyes peered from beneath bushy eyebrows. His high cheekbones and the downward curve of his mouth made his features appear grim and darkly authoritative. He wore a headdress of black silk, folded into many layers, which framed the crown of his head like a halo. His ao dai was ocean blue, with a subtle, darker, dotted pattern of embroidery, representing the royal symbol of longevity. The fabric was handwoven from a superlative silk, made by the silkworms of the famous Phu Yen Village. Even a rich man could afford only a few such garments. He returned the old man's salutation with a slow bow, then knitted his hands together and faced his palms upward, placing them against his abdomen.

"Greetings," he said to the visitor. "My name is Tat Nguyen. I am the father of the groom. Welcome to our humble town." The old man's head bowed lower, so that no one could see his lips moving as he spoke. "Thank you, but I am afraid that I can't accept your warm welcome, Master Nguyen. My job is to deliver my granddaughter to your home. It is now done, and so I must bid my farewell. Take her with you to the groom. From this moment on, she belongs in your household, sir."

He stepped aside, leaving room for the groom's family to approach the sampan. A pair of servants came forward and joined the other two on the boat. One stood at each corner of the bridal cabin. Then, with one synchronized movement, they hoisted the cubicle to their shoulders and carried it to the shore.

Master Nguyen lifted a corner of his robe and strode to the cabin. He parted the silk screen with the back of his hand to reveal its small interior. Looking back at him was a woman in her twenties. Dressed in a red wedding gown, she crouched with visible discomfort in the center of the cabin. The moment she saw his face, she recoiled farther into her cramped sanctuary. Her eyes, slanted and wide-set, darted as though she were searching for a way to flee. From years of working outdoors, her body had absorbed so much sunlight that a glow seemed to radiate from her skin. She had a big, flat nose, large mouth, and oversized teeth, which were stained black with the juice of betel nuts. He drew his eyebrows together disapprovingly.

"Master, do you like what you see, sir?" came a female voice from somewhere behind him. He turned to see an elderly woman whose back was bent so close to the ground that she appeared to be crawling instead of walking. She was the matchmaker who was responsible for this arranged wedding. Trying to meet his stare, she looped her neck like a duck.

"How old is she?" he asked. "Four and twenty, sir." His frown deepened. "She is an old maid, isn't she?" "She is very healthy," the matchmaker replied quickly. "She is as strong as a bull. And look at her breasts. They are heavy. You will be blessed with many grandchildren."

He relaxed his grimace, looked at the bride, and asked, "What is your name, daughter?"

Upon hearing this, the matchmaker turned happily to the others. "The master has approved. He called her 'daughter.' Bring in the musicians!"

A much louder noise from a turn of the street drowned out the old lady's excited cry-the pulsating sound of a drum. Within seconds, a dragon made of glossy painted wood, cardboard, and papier mache, held up high on bamboo sticks, appeared at the opening of the wharf. From afar, it seemed to float through the village. Young men in white shirts and red pants danced under it to the beat of the drum. Lanterns, shaped like butterflies and fish, burned brightly under the earlymorning sun. A soprano sang the ending verse from the famous opera The King's Wedding. Her voice glided to the highest note before it, too, blended with the sounds of revelry. More firecrackers soared through the air, and no one seemed to notice when the old man slipped away to his boat and turned it back downstream. When the noisy celebration dimmed, the bride shyly answered her father-in-law's question. "My name is Ven, sir."

"Good." Master Nguyen nodded. It was a lowly name that one would give only to a dog, yet somehow it suited her, he thought. The matchmaker handed him a red veil, which he hung over the bride 's head, concealing her face. From that time on, all she could see were the ruby tips of her slippers, yet she was thankful. The sheer fabric became her protective shield. Alone in a strange town, she would rather be led through the ceremony like a blind woman, unaware of the disparaging looks, like the one she had just received from her husband's father. In the back of her mind, a pang of curiosity stirred up, as faint as smoke. What did he look like? She knew nothing about her bridegroom. What of his personality, his likes, his dislikes, even his name? And yet, these things mattered little at this juncture of her life. Like it or not, she was about to be a married woman.

The servants carried her through the streets. The farther they walked, the more vigorously the cabin rocked on their shoulders. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and let herself sway with its movement. The thought of becoming a fine woman in a rich man's home relaxed her aching muscles. The folds of her satin gown trapped her body heat, and she began perspiring. "An elegant lady never sweats." She dimly remembered an old saying she had heard as a child. She reached under the veil and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

At last, the bridal party stopped at what seemed to be the back entrance of a house. Someone swept aside the silk curtain of her cubicle and took her callused palm. She recognized the matchmaker's wrinkled hand as the old lady guided her down a muddy path that led to a wooden door.

At the entrance, a burning pot of red coals sat on the ground waiting for her. It was the custom for the bride to step over a blazing stove before setting foot in her new home. The fire would rid her soul of any evil spirits still clinging to it. The matchmaker explained that, according to the astrologer, Ven's unfortunate time of birth required her to enter through the back door and go straight to her honeymoon suite. The rest of the wedding celebration would continue without her.

Ven had to wait for her husband to come and lift her veil. This was another important tradition she had been told that she must follow if she ever hoped to have a long and happy life with this man. Seeing nothing but the tiles beneath her feet, Ven was led through unseen rooms and seated on her bridal bed, alone in the unfamiliar house. Ven lost count of how many hours she remained alone. From the fading of a few streaks of light on the floor, she could tell that the day had aged into night. Outside the window, the party seemed to be winding down. She could hear the laughter slowly diminish into the slurring of drunken guests. The ebullient opera had ended, and now there was a single, soporific moan of a lute. In the dark, her back throbbed, and the numbness in her buttocks spread down her legs. She was hungry and tired. The gown tightened around her bosom, making it difficult for her to breathe.

Just when she thought she could not wait any longer, Ven heard the squeaking noise of a door as it opened and shut. A small group of people tiptoed into the room. Their whispering sounded to her like the wind rasping against rice paper. The oil lamp on the nightstand by her side flickered into light. Moments later, she heard the intruders withdraw, carefully closing the door behind them.

But Ven could tell that she was not alone. The subtle movement of the furniture, the faint rustle of clothing, and the quiet footsteps moving back and forth kept her frozen in place. It's him, she thought. It must be my husband. Who else could it be? In seconds, her months of waiting would be over. Like a boiling pot of water, the anxiety rose up, and she could hardly control her composure. She sat tightly, watching her hands tremble. She could feel the heat from her husband's body as he approached her. She kept her eyes downcast. Touching the ruby tips of her slippers were two tiny bare feet, just half the size of hers. A small hand reached out and clumsily tugged the veil from her face.

Standing before her was a little boy wearing a groom's costume. He could not have been older than seven. She could see the wide gap of his missing front teeth as he grinned at her, and it came to her that this child was her husband.

She got up from the edge of the wedding bed and lowered the oil lamp until it emitted only a dot of light the size of a pea. Quietly, she took off her restrictive clothing. The boy sat on the bed and watched her with his large, almond-shaped eyes. He inserted his thumb into the gap in his teeth. Ven left her undergarments on and climbed into the bed, pulling the mosquito net over her. As she lay down, her husband snuggled into her outstretched arms. He buried his face in her armpit, sucking his thumb.

She took the boy's wrist and pulled the finger out of his mouth. With an effort, she made her voice low and reasonable. "Young master, you are too old for this habit." He lay still, looking at her. Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep. Ven struggled with an impulse to wipe the drool off his face.

In the dark, she began to understand what her position would be in this rich man's house. They did not marry her to make her a fine lady. They wanted her for slave labor. Yet, being a daughter-in-law, she was not entitled to the salary a servant would have been paid. To her surprise, Ven found she could not cry. Soon exhaustion claimed her.


Excerpted from The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Tapestries 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
LininCT More than 1 year ago
Just a wonderful book - rich in story and characters - it's truly unforgettable. I would even reread this book and hope to find more great stories from this author. A true talent and rare find in the myriad of authors and books on the market. I feel truly lucky to have purchased this remarkable story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i love this book.... it has romance, suspense, revenge, tragedy, mystery, all in one... mayb more though... but this book is easy to read and understand... i wouldnt even put the book down to go back to sleep because i was so interested in this book... must readd...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kien survived unbelievable hardships, unbelievable unless you know something of Vietnam and her history, in order to grace us with his creativity and humanity. His first book, Unwanted, had to have been one of the most difficult of writing projects. This one, however, was a project of pure unadulterated love. He introduces us to his beloved grandfather and describes an almost improbable life lived on the edge of disaster almost from birth. Kien's depictions of the imperial court in Hue and descriptions of landmarks in the Citadel were like a homecoming to me. After the battle there in February, 1968, I was able to return and wander the New City (severely damaged) streets, see the hole in the Catholic cathedral caused by a rocket that passed through but didn't blow up, much to my relief since I was in the sanctuary with some comrades and citizens of Hue. The vividness Kien used to illustrate the characters all the way from his 'wife' Ven, to his nemisis, Toan, to the new emperor, to his life long love Mai, made it feel like I was actually there with him. In a way I was, having served near the village where his grandfather came from. This is a wonderful book and it serves, I hope, as a bridge he will use to give us more of the history of that wonderful country and its people.
PhDrSeuss More than 1 year ago
i was bored & wanted something 2 read. out of all the books i have i chose the tapestries and loved it. the book was everything good i can think of. the main character dan nguyen (mouse)goes thru alot thru out the book. he starts of as one of royalty who marries at a very young age and then loses his family in a cruel way. after that event he later becomes a servant/playmate to tai may,a girl whose family is of a high status & who he later develops deep feelin for. after leaving her (u gotta read why) he then goes thru so much in his life. he doesnt give up and thats what i like best bout him (other than the event in which he & tai met up at a celebration). the tapestries (for me) was hard to put down (i dont know rhe last time i read a book in such a short time --- 1 1/2 days). its really worth the read. once u start u will find out why i couldnt put it down. as for the ending .....u are gonna love it!!!!
Vermillion_Bear More than 1 year ago
I can't believe this is suppose to be based on true life stories from the author's grandfather. This book has everything, murder, adventure, revenge, and love. Definitely a great book to read and intriguing. This book could be made into a movie and would do well. Wonderful story. I've read The Unwanted by Kien Nguyn and I hope to read more from him.
Hill_Ravens More than 1 year ago
An adventure through one boys complicated life from 7 years old to late in his adult life. The author is great with descriptions, creating vivid locations and developing the main characters with thought and care. The evil men in the book are so evil; I couldn't even cheer or be relieved in their demise. The happiness Mouse finally finds is hard earned and cherished all the more. It was nice to see Asian female characters which did more than let the men around them rule their lives. Out of the three main female characters, each was strong, intelligent and self-less in their own ways. Mouse has to make some tough decisions, and he doesn't always make the right one first. It was good to see a hero who suffered from normal doubts and logic puzzles. Overall a very delightful book, would recommend to anyone who likes historical books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book that kept me reading. It flows very smooth. It is a fictional book based around a few key events in his grandfather's life. You won't be disappointed with this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very interesting and I had a hard time putting it down. There were some parts of the book where some of the character's stories seeemed unfinished, but in the author's notes he helped to wrap up the mysteries surrounding these characters. The book read not only as an interesting novel, but somewhat like a mystery/suspense/thriller. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. Kien Nguyen is a promising and talented writer.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1916 Viet Nam, twenty-four years old Ven is shocked to learn that her new husband Dan Nguyen is only seven years old. She quickly learns why his father agreed to her joining his family as a ¿daughter¿. She is now an unpaid servant (perhaps slave is more descriptive) to her three mothers-in-law as expected by society. Still she tries to do what is best for her husband as their relationship is more mother to child than a married couple. However, when the town¿s mayor has Dan¿s parents killed, Ven protects her spouse. When she becomes ill she sells Dan into slavery into the safest place she knows, the home of the mayor. Years later Dan and Tai May, granddaughter of the mayor, fall in love. However, another suitor destroys their happiness by revealing Dan¿s preadolescent marriage, forcing Dan to flee for his life. THE TAPESTRIES is a tremendous early twentieth century Viet Namese historical tale that is at an incredible level of excellence up to the point that Dan runs away after being exposed. Though the plot meanders after that, the insightful story line provides an intriguing glimpse at a time and place. Along with the resplendent light on the past, the three dimensional cast turns Kien Nguyen¿s novel into a must read for sub-genre fans who will also want to obtain the author¿s biography THE UNWANTED as this is a talented writer worth following. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago