Bookshelf: Daughters of the River Huong

I've been waiting to read Daughters of the River Huong, by Uyen Nicole Duong, for awhile. I have two adopted sisters who were born in Vietnam, and it's a place I admit I have a lot of curiosity about and little real knowledge. A novel might not usually be the best place to gain historical knowledge, but Vietnam's most recent conquests, from the French to VietCong to the Americans, were gracefully woven into the narrative.

During the process of adopting my first sister from Vietnam, my mother ended up staying in the country for several months. My mother and Anny were in a tiny hotel room in Hanoi, where she'd do laundry in the sink and could lie down on the floor and touch both walls. I remember when they finally came home, she told stories of French architecture and incredible food cooked on the sidewalk, of vivid silks and wide-eyed street children, of zipping motorbikes and lazy heat. Everyone in our family got their own ao dai to wear to Anny's christening. Vietnam seemed to my middle-school self like a land of richness and wonder.

But I'd also read enough about the ongoing struggle, the pain and disruption and brutality of the Vietnam War (and seen Forrest Gump, which I confess informed the other half of my impressions) to not only imagine a lush jungle paradise.

No novel truly encompasses a country or a culture, unless the writer was Michener. ;) But the story of Vietnam (a story of conquest and subjugation but also beauty and resilience) was told through the generations of women in one family. It's a melancholy tale that follows the life of a royal concubine, then her daughters—the revolutionist and the princess, then her granddaughter—a plain woman who loved to create gardens in the midst of drab realities, and finally, the great-granddaughter who was rescued at the fall of Saigon, lived in America, who loved, lost and sang. It's a glimpse at a culture, told through the perspective of admittedly aristocratic characters. If nothing else, the book gave me an even deeper desire to learn about Vietnam, to travel there someday, to learn about the ancient and beautiful country where my sisters were born.

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