AS The Heart Bones Break is a novel of dualities and battles, of national and communal conflict echoed in the personal.
The story of a Vietnamese immigrant to America, torn by loyalty to the country he left behind, mirrors the fractures in the land of his birth.
These include the post-World War II conflict that divided North and South Vietnam, and the various classes of Vietnamese society shaped by invading cultures from the Chinese to the French.
The protagonist, Thong, is appropriately born out of a forced sexual encounter during the bloody and confusing battles between independence-minded Viet Minh guerillas and the French government re-established after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
His biological father is away at war, so he is brought up instead by a civil servant, and ultimately shaped by a third father figure in the person of a charming spy.
As Thong grows into adulthood, one conflict in the country gives way to another.
The French are replaced by Americans, who are then assailed by the Viet Cong. Thong somehow survives, emigrates to America, and there builds a career as an aerospace engineer. His high-society Vietnamese-American bride picks away at his determination to keep the past hidden, ultimately unveiling the truth, including why he kept so many things secret.
Audrey Chin sets herself a complex task with her second novel, that of telling a story which many Vietnamese – by her own admission – would rather not articulate. It is the story of those who survived the multiple conflicts that rocked Vietnam from the 1940s to the 1980s, so many that they only come clear in a helpful appendix which sets out a concise history of the country.
Reading it enlarges one’s appreciation of all Thong and his compatriots survived.
The story is riveting and effortlessly draws readers into Thong’s life and times.
The use of the second person is no hindrance and even enhances the intimacy of the narrative.
More confusing is the unnecessarily large cast of characters, who then fail to receive their dues.
Much is devoted in the first 50 pages to setting up the characters of Thong’s biological and adopted fathers, who represent the two political forces in the country.
They are then relegated to the sidelines, with their roles in Thong’s upbringing ignored in favour of the third symbolic “father”, the spy.
Women such as Thong’s wife Nina, and former lover Julia, not to mention his biological mother, are mostly devices to move the plot forward, and therefore seem to exist as mere vessels for the men in their lives. This may be addressed in the sequel the author is currently working on, which will focus on Nina’s story.
Where this book undoubtedly scores is in prose that is descriptive and intimate without being cloying. English renderings of Vietnamese terms are woven in seamlessly and lyrically. Chin’s clear vision of Vietnam’s mid-20th century past is as fascinating and full-blooded as Thong’s own character. I look forward to reading more stories from her perspective. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network