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Multi generational novel set mainly in SAIGON

25th July 2023

Dust Child by Ngyėn Phan Qué Mai, multi generational novel set mainly in Saigon.

Multi generational novel set mainly in SAIGON

#Audiobook narrated by Quyen Ngo

I happened to have this novel both in audiobook and in hardback, and I decided to listen to some chapters on audiobook – whilst I was out on a walk or doing household chores – and then continue and pick up reading from where I left off. I alternated between the two until I finished the novel. I had always wanted to try this but thought that there was perhaps too much organisation involved; in fact there isn’t. In the audiobook version the chapters are clearly marked and it was then easy to move to the relevant chapter in the book. The wonderful aspect of doing this with this particular novel was that you could hear what the Vietnamese sounded like, as there are a fair few words and sentences in the narrative which all add authenticity and poignancy.

The war in Vietnam was a conflict between North (Communist) Vietnam and the South that started in 1955 and continued until the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. The Americans entered on the southern side in 1964, essentially to ‘stop the spread of Communism’. It was a terrible war that inflicted casualties on all sides, with a level of brutality that is beyond comprehension, including chemical warfare, torture and targeted destruction. The story gives voices to different characters during the war years and beyond and examines the legacy, and both psychological and emotional harm of the terrible years.

The story stretches from the late 1960s to more or less present day. Back in 1969, Trang and Quynh were two young sisters living in the countryside who were convinced they would find good work in Saigon in order to help their impoverished parents. It turns out that they had been lured into bar work, entertaining American GIs.

Dan falls for one of the bar girls, whom he knows as Kim. They set up home together, so that he has somewhere to relax between missions. Long after the war has ended, he decides to return to Saigon, with his wife, to try and find ‘Kim’, whom he unceremoniously abandoned when she told him she was pregnant with his child. He has suffered from PTSD and other psychological harm since the war, and the effects of what he had witnessed were already becoming all too evident in the last period of their time together, as the war raged and damaged so many people in its wake. All this time he has had the support of his wife, but she is unaware of what went on for him during the war years on a personal level.

The fourth character is Phong, who is the child of a Vietnamese woman and a black American GI, who was abandoned in an orphanage when he was very young. Children who had distinctly different features and colour to the Vietnamese were known as dust children – Amerasians –  and were subjected to discrimination, bullying, existing on the margins of society. Phong is desperate to find out more about his heritage and runs foul of a family, who suggests they adopt him so that they can all file papers and go to a better life in America. It doesn’t happen and he remains in the country of his birth, eking out a living.

There are several interwoven threads in this novel, which offer an effective overview of the war from when the Americans entered. This is an informative story and a timely and poignant reminder of the long lasting effects and damage of war. It also filled a few gaps in my own personal knowledge of the war years. Recommended.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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