My mother had no daughter. It was her gift to me.
The novel begins in Vietnam as our young narrator is reunited with her mother, living under protection inside a military camp after she comes to the dangerous attention of the Prime Minister for her work as an energy consultant “bringing electricity to hundreds of districts in Vietnam”. Angering those corrupted by greed who would rather abuse the funds by “buying defunct equipment” keeping the wealth for themselves,her only option had been to seek refuge, leaving behind her daughter. Her lieutenant friend saves her, but she must remain loyal to the President. Cassette tapes were their means of communication during the separation but now she is living with her mother among other families under military protection as well. Lonely, she spends her time being cared for by ‘my soldier’, there to take care of her every need, emotional and otherwise, more nurturing than her distant mother. Her mother’s overload of information a jumbled mess to her child’s mind, “I wanted only to be held, to press my nose to her stomach,” she feels like a failure, a poor student, worse a bed wetter. To no longer be given away, she promises to be good, oblivious to her mother’s political games, not understanding that the only reason they are alive is because of her mother’s abandonment.
A child of loneliness her entire existence, everything changes when she meets ‘little girl’. The two sometimes merging into one, making up stories for each other, giving funerals for bugs, playing games and sharing in the disgusting shame of the adults. Little girl is destined for poverty and ignorance, and yet she is the deepest, earliest connection to love she will ever know. Their love is a sisterhood that will haunt her for years to come. The past becomes ash when her mother manages to help her escape to the United States to begin her second life leaving behind her best friend.
Part Two or second life to my thinking, she is now a grown adult recalling the punishing years of moving through different homes of friends, families, her mother’s connections in America, never fitting in. Longing for information about her mother “lost in her fiction”, trying to follow Vietnam’s politics, knowing she is alive only through second hand sources, sorting through gossip online, life is again solitary. She meets a woman named Lilah in Montauk, New York, echoing the immediate bond she once shared with ‘little girl’. Pulled into her escapades and ‘affairs’, passion grows between them until their lives merge. Lilah has wounds that fester but her eccentricities and boundless energy hide the sorrow. “I was drawn to her because people are drawn to uncertainty, the abyss.” When around husband Jon, Lilah is less free, diminished somehow. The two become three and she surrenders herself in their hands. This is where the story explores the meaning of friendship, love, all-consuming grief and the maniacal nature of fate. She is between two places always, until tragedy strikes and life comes full circle in Part Three. It is a strange and tragic tale. The defilement of both the narrator and her friend at the start of the novel had me gutted, the horrors always eat away at the children when it comes to politics, don’t they? Hard to read, but closing your eyes changes nothing. It’s a rupture in time, the things that transpire. As a grown woman I certainly don’t make light of how mind numbing it must be to make your way through the world without the nurturing and love of parents. Tragic doing so while moving between two countries, two identities with scars and severe trauma. That is shocking enough, a child hungry for love, connection so much so that she is willing to encompass her best friend’s pain as her own, later learning to be degraded, coming of age expecting nothing as not to feel disappointment. There is another vital character later, her neighbor, and I love how they both act as ghosts in a sense for each other, but come to mean so much more. The author’s take on loss and love hit me between the eyes. Loss… loss as ‘a fuller experience than love’ opened the floodgates for me. Whoa!
I stayed up late last night, devouring every last page and that is saying a lot as I am recovering from invasive surgery, but I was at the end and it was actually my favorite part. The beginning reads a bit differently than when our narrator is an adult, because it is told through the mist of youth, but it flows. Yes, read it!
Publication Date: April 19, 2019