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Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Monkey Bridge by Lan CaoHailed by critics and writers as powerful, important fiction, Monkey Bridge charts the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war. Like navigating a monkey bridge–a bridge, built of spindly bamboo, used by peasants for centuries–the narrative traverses perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, in telling two interlocking stories: one, the Vietnamese version of the classic immigrant experience in America, told by a young girl; and the second, a dark tale of betrayal, political intrigue, family secrets, and revenge–her mother’s tale. The haunting and beautiful terrain of Monkey Bridge is the “luminous motion,” as it is called in Vietnamese myth and legend, between generations, encompassing Vietnamese lore, history, and dreams of the past as well as of the future. “With incredible lightness, balance and elegance,” writes Isabel Allende, “[Lan Cao crosses] over an abyss of pain, loss, separation and exile, connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirits.”

Monkey Bridge is the story of Mai and Thanh, recent immigrants to America from Vietnam. Through the kindness of Uncle Michael, an American GI and family friend, Mai was able to leave before the fall of Saigon; her mother, Thanh, followed through the American airlift shortly after. The novel highlights the struggle for Mai and her mother to assimilate in America. For Mai, the struggle is not too difficult. Within a few months, she has learned to appreciate America’s shopping malls, has gotten used to the chill of Virginia, and speaks American English without a Vietnamese accent. For Thanh, the adjustment is more challenging. In Vietnam, Thanh’s French convent school education gave her fluency in French and a love for the French classics. In America, she is just another immigrant who spoke no English.

In their effort to assimilate, Mai and her mother have ignored the riddle that continues to prey on their minds: on the day that her mother was airlifted out of Saigon, Mai’s grandfather, Baba Quan, was left behind. Mai is confused by her mother’s alternating grief for and seeming indifference to Baba Quan. When Thanh suffers a stroke, Mai hears her call out for Baba Quan. This incident sparks Mai’s resolve to find her grandfather, because she believes Baba Quan is the only person who can ease Thanh’s disquiet.

Lan Cao has clearly written an autobiographical novel. In the book’s jacket, the author is described as having left Vietnam in 1975. The photo, naturally, is the requisite black and white. Lan Cao is wearing black, standing against a stark background with her arms folded, unsmiling. Clearly, this is a very serious book about a very serious subject from a very serious writer.

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Filed under Debuts, Postcolonial Literature