Saturday 27 January 2024

Review by Thilsana Gias of "Dust Child" by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai


Dust Child is a breathtaking novel which powerfully weaves together the stories of people affected by the Vietnam War. 

The narrative itself is non-linear and told through multiple perspectives, allowing readers to simultaneously piece together the broken lives of the characters whilst untangling the complexity of what it means to have family in a time of conflict.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai particularly focuses on the struggles on Amerasian children, the women who bore them and the soldiers that left them behind. As readers, we find ourselves constantly challenging our own perceptions of duty, loyalty and honour as characters condemn each other's acts of survival whilst seeking forgiveness for their own wrongdoings.

Something significantly striking about this novel is the way that the writer allows characters to create a comforting, domestic bubble to protect themselves, only for it be abruptly punctured time and time again by trauma: "'Don't cook anything red!' he screamed as he washed up in the bathroom. She stared at the soup, made from ripe tomatoes she'd sautéed with finely chopped shrimps. Perhaps the colour resembled blood - blood that he'd seen or blood that he'd caused to spill."

Despite exploring such abject darkness, the novel is a multi-sensory delight for those who seek comfort in tropical settings. With references to sprawling markets, fresh rambutan, and expansive rice fields, you are rewarded with the richness of Vietnamese culture without crude romanticisation or the stench of death overpowering beautiful moments in the narrative. 

Something that is also distinctly Vietnamese about the narrative is the dialogue - the author often has entire sentences in Vietnamese or transliterated English showing how characters are able to break and build bonds with each other despite cultural and linguistic barriers.

The vibrancy and colour in this novel is also drawn from the respect that the characters have for storytelling. Stories become a source of power, betrayal, comfort and healing, even if untrue. What is most compelling about Dust Child, however, is the way that stories give a voice to the displaced, discriminated against and deployed. Clearly, the author's personal experiences with uniting American veterans and their children in Vietnam is what gives the novel a distinctly human touch.

About the reviewer
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester and a secondary school English Teacher based in Luton. She doesn't have much time for reading these days but is making a conscious effort to read something other than Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde and An Inspector Calls.

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