“A brilliant evocation of human sorrow and desire. . . . Heartbreaking and exhilarating. . . . As vivid as a fairy tale, as allusive as a poem.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Breathtaking. . . . Flows in luminous paragraphs that mingle past and present, creating a fluid sense of time.” —Vogue
“Slender and elegant. . . . A beautifully rendered description of the personal, psychological and historical threads that link father to daughter.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"lê captures the magical thinking of childhood with its shifting awareness of the wonders and apprehensions of life." —Village Voice Literary Supplement
Though dense with allusion and simile, Le's prose is precise and uncluttered. She has a strong pictorial talent, and can make the reader see everything from the wings of a butterfly preserved in a glass paperweight to the giddy acrobatics of little boys jumping into a pool. An unerring eye for the seemingly mundane details of everyday life guides her story, and a sly sense of humor graces an imagination busily occupied with the possibilities of metaphor. — Paul Baumann
While the novel brilliantly illuminates its unlikely troika, what the narrative leaves out is just as striking. It seems significant that descriptions of the Vietnam War barely figure in the story and that American characters remain fuzzy, undifferentiated and impressionistic. In this way, the relationship of this engaging and original novel to more conventional American narratives of Vietnam may be thought to be like a photographic negative: What's white is dark, what's dark is white, and the image is strange and mesmerizing. — Peter Zinoman
Le's first novel is a bracing, unvarnished, elliptical account of a Vietnamese refugee family, in America but not yet of it, hobbled by an unfamiliar environment and their own troubled relationships. It's narrated by the family's young daughter, newly arrived in San Diego with her father after being sponsored by a well-meaning but condescending American family. Her mother soon joins them, and the family endures an itinerant existence of low-wage jobs and cheap rental apartments. Other Vietnamese wander namelessly through the book, sharing space with the family but providing little of the warmth of community. Nearly plotless, the novel is organized into vignettes that each feature one piercing image: a drunken parent, a shattered display cabinet, a drowned boy. As the narrator makes her halting adjustment to America, she also tries to discover what the family has left behind in Vietnam. Her father's mysterious past caused him to be rejected by his in-laws; these grandparents are now known to the girl only through a worn photograph. Then there is her brother, whose fate is mentioned only in whispers. Le allows no sentimentality to creep into this work-indeed, she hints only subtly at the narrator's emotional state ("there is no trace of blood anywhere except here, in my throat, where I am telling you all of this"), as though any explicit show of feeling were too frivolous for the subject at hand. This is a stark and significant work that will challenge readers. (May) Forecast: Front-list sales will be respectable, but this may do even better in paperback, as a likely candidate for course adoption in college literature classes with a focus on the immigrant experience. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Despite the short length, child protagonist, and many similarities to recent works such as An Na's A Step from Heaven (Front Street, 2001/VOYA June 2001) and Pegi Deitz Shea's Tangled Threads (Houghton Mifflin, 2003/VOYA December 2003), Lê's book was not published as young adult literature, in part perhaps because of its lack of a linear narrative. Labeled a novel, the book is in fact a series of thinly veiled autobiographical sketches, parts of which previously appeared in Harper's, The Massachusetts Review, and Best American Essays. It follows the typical pattern for such stories. In 1978, a young girl and her father escape from Vietnam by sea and wind up in San Diego. Sharing a single room with four "uncles," they struggle to make their way in an alien land. Eventually the girl's mother joins them, and the family works very hard at a series of menial jobs. Although the women folk adjust fairly well, the father takes to drinking and eventually becomes abusive. When she reaches sixteen, the girl runs away from home, never to return. Lê is a talented prose stylist with a knack for telling details, although her fondness for switching viewpoint characters and tenses, sometimes in the middle of a scene, can be a bit jarring. This addition to the growing field of Asian immigrant fiction is worthwhile, but teenaged readers would be better served reading the Na and Shea books unless they have a narrowly focused interest in the Vietnamese experience in America. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2003, Knopf,160p., $18. Ages 15 to Adult.
In five chapters, le brings a fictionalized version of herself from arrival in southern California as a little girl and resettled Vietnamese boat refugee to the young adulthood from which she can look back, clear eyed but with warmth, on her parents with their difficult relationship, her own experiences growing up on the American margin, and early memories of village life in Vietnam. Both less complex and more eloquent than Dao Strom's similarly themed Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), the images here are filtered through the understanding of a central character who is young enough, upon her arrival in America, to report the living conditionssharing a room with her father and the four men who escaped and were resettled with themwithout judgment on either their suitability or social inferences. She matures into a girl who understands both her own and her mother's frustrations when the reunited family moves to an address where the landlord ham-handedly shows his fears for his property as his tenants negotiate a new culture. In adolescence and young adulthood, this same girl is able both to understand the disconnect between her parents' expectations of each other and America, and her own need to place distance between them and herself while remembering the world she left in Vietnam. Accessible and engaging, this novel goes far to make the refugee experience palpable without being daunting. A fine companion piece to An Na's A Step from Heaven (Front Street, 2001). KLIATT Codes: JSA*Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Anchor, 176p., Ages 12 to adult.
In the opening pages of this affecting debut, a Vietnamese girl who has survived the open seas with her father and four "uncles" winds up in America at the home of a somewhat reluctant sponsor. There she finds a paperweight containing a butterfly and smashes it to release the beautiful creature-an act that gets the refugees thrown out. The butterfly is rather too patently a symbol for the young protagonist herself, who eventually flutters away from her prison, though not in so obvious a fashion. The story, however, is as much about her parents' marriage, strained to breaking not only by the effort to adapt to America but by memories of Vietnam. The mother had defied her south Catholic family to marry a northerner reputed to be a gangster, and violence and passion still run through their relationship. In addition, they have lost a son, who drowned in the South China Seas and sometimes comes to haunt his confused little sister. The story opens slowly but gathers strength, and though it remains somewhat muted, le's lyrical writing and skill with the telling vignette will reward patient readers. For all Asian/immigrant collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A detailed and moving saga of a Vietnamese family in America, subtly assembled from this limpid debut's kaleidoscopic array of gorgeous and troubling word pictures. The unnamed narrator's musings move forward and backward in time, from East to West, between her confused childhood and the "escape" she makes from her parents in California to relocate in the eastern US. The early pages describe her flight, with her father (Ba) and four uncles, from Vietnam by boat, their arrival in San Diego, and troubled relationships with a well-meaning American host family. After she and Ba have been reunited with her mother (Ma), the narrator then describes their constant moves from one apartment and job to another. We then learn about her parents' youth, and Ma's estrangement from her family for having married "a Buddhist gangster" who's also her social inferior. As these details emerge, thúy builds a heart-wrenching picture of her narrator's abstracted, conflicted psyche, repeatedly reemphasizing the girl's preternatural sensitivity to new sights, sounds, smells, and textures while revealing the death of her older brother by drowning in childhood, and how this loss haunted her family for many years after. The consequent impressions of disorientation, resentment, and loneliness are powerfully conveyed by numerous abrupt, startling images (a girl killed by a napalm bombing that "made her body glow, like a lantern"; a dead butterfly preserved in a glass disk and employed as a paperweight; and a climactic vision of the bodies of small "silver fish" washed out of the open sea onto a moonlit beach). The narrative thus resembles a song with a pronounced central refrain, around which an infinite number ofverse variations are clustered. Beautiful stuff-and a brilliant debut. Book-of-the-Month Club selection; author tour