Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: March 14, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Historical
The Vietnam War has been written about from many points of view in fiction, but for the most part my reading has focused on the years of the war, rife as they are with the atrocities perpetuated on the Vietnamese, both by their own people (ARVN soldiers in the South, Viet Cong in the North) and then the Americans. Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai takes a longer view by beginning in the modern day before flashing back to the war years to create a searing story of generational trauma.
The lives of four disparate characters are woven in Dust Child. In 2016, Dan is an American still haunted by his tour as a helicopter pilot in 1969. Phong is biracial, the child of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, who wants answers about his identity. In 1969 Trang, an 18-year-old village girl, goes with her younger sister to Saigon after a friend convinces them there is easy money to be made as “bar girls” by having drinks with lonely American GIs.
With each page Nguyễn fills in the outlines of Phong, Dan, and Trang. Phong, who’s been reviled and abused his whole life as not only Black, but as the child of an American. Now a grown man with children of his own, he wants to get to America to find his father and give his family the life they deserve. A life that, by and large, Dan is living. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart, but decades later he still battles grief over friends lost and guilt about the secrets he holds. With his marriage at a breaking point, he agrees to go with his wife to Vietnam as a way to heal. For Trang, there are no secrets, just the painful truth that working in a bar only means money if you sleep with the customers. She fights despair after sacrificing herself to keep her sister safe, until she meets a GI who just wants to talk. His name is Dan.
It would be so easy for Nguyễn to write Dust Child in black and white, each character neatly slotted into their expected role. Instead, she explores the many shades of not just the war, but Vietnam, the country now. There is a balance to her writing, as lyrical as it is, that allows a full range of human emotions to blossom on the page. Characters that may seem ancillary at the beginning, like the tour guide Dan and his wife hire, turn out to have their own scars layered beneath innocuous personas. And while Dan, with his cushy American life, feels less suited for sympathy, Nguyen exposes the very real toll taken on soldiers in a war we never should have entered.
As horrific as the war years were, it’s the novel’s movement in the years after and up to the present day that hit the hardest. The long-term implications, the generational trauma, all play out all play out in intimate, painful detail. Lives lost, a new population of children no one wants, dreams shattered. The impact of the kind of decisions that no mother, father, sibling or loved one should ever have to make. Through Dust Child, Nguyen seeks to tie up loose ends that span decades. The novel is one of sorrow on many sides, but there is also the hope and resilience of its characters. Nguyen brings Dust Child full circle, but not with a sugarcoated ending. Sadly,here are secrets that must be kept and questions that can never be answered.
She realized that her involvement with Dan, just like his country’s involvement with Viet Nam, was a mistake. Both caused irreparable damage, leaving the Vietnamese to clean up the mess.
Nguyễn’s debut, The Mountains Sing, is a stunning novel of the war as told from the perspective of two North Vietnamese women.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest review.*