Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: March 13th 2012
In Communist countries “reeducation” is a euphemism for prison camp, forced labor, deprivation, and sometimes, torture. In Aimee Phan’s new book The Reeducation of Cherry Truong there is none of these but the end result is similar: a stripping away of old beliefs and breakdown of long held truths.
Cherry is the American-born daughter of Sanh Truong and Tuyet Vo. In the late 1970s they managed to flee Vietnam as some of the hundreds of thousands of boat people but are unable to keep their family together. The Vos end up in California but with limited options the Truongs go to France. Part of this history is encapsulated through old family letters that appear innocuous on the surface but hold deeper truths, while the balance is told in past and present by various family members.
One of the key relationships in the novel is that between Cherry’s mother, Tuyet, and her mother, Kim-Ly. This is also one of the most serpentine and mysterious of relationships in the book; neither character is as she seems. Kim-Ly tries to marry a young Tuyet off to a 70-year-old American general. In response, Tuyet runs away and marries a colleague. Later, after the fall of Saigon, as they are all trying to escape Tuyet tries to win back her mother’s love by promising her three seats on a boat to Malaysia, the escape they’ve all been looking for desperately. When this doesn’t happen, Kim-Ly is left behind and her heart hardens towards her daughter.
But she wouldn’t be deluded. While she and her loyal children and grandchildren suffered, year after year, while they scrapped for demeaning jobs and sold heirloom belongings for food and medicine, the hate she felt in her heart stirred her to stay alive, determined not to allow one narcissistic, spiteful brat to destroy her family.
The initial letters and history portray Kim-Ly as an almost heroic victim, a woman whose husband died and who was left to raise their children on her own as the war escalates. What she does to ensure their survival reveals a woman much more predator than victim. Her arrogance is astonishing and her belief that she is always right and knows best goes beyond reason. It is due to her actions that Cherry’s brother, Lum, is sent him back to Vietnam. It is in visiting him that Cherry begins to perceive the split between what she has always believed about her family and the truth.
While the focus of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is on inter-family relationships and situations, Phan is dexterous enough to explore stories outside the family, stories of cultural assimilation, accountability, and gender roles, in such a way that only adds to the beauty and complexity of the narrative and keeps the reader engrossed. For long-time wife, Hua, there is her husband’s increasing senility
Hua wondered if Hung’s illness was not a tragedy, but rather, nature’s way of correcting their relationship. With his memory fading, finally, finally, her home would be under her control. She would decide what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, without his approval. She could contribute to conversations with the children and grandchildren without Hung telling her to shut up. With Hung silenced, she could finally utilize her voice.
By presenting the past from so many different viewpoints the layers of truth are stripped away in the tiniest of increments, leaving the reader with a sense of unease. It is difficult to know who can be trusted and all motives are questionable. In the harrowing last days of Saigon both families struggle and once the Communists are in power decisions are made and actions taken with survival as the only criteria. Later, despite reaching safety and even prosperity it is clear these old wounds linger and fester and in some cases there is no forgiveness but only a desire for vengeance. For Cherry, the return to Saigon begins a journey that educates her to the past and teaches her to decide her own future.