Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Just Read :: No Man's Land, by Duong Thu Huong
This book is challenging. It's sad and it's hard. But it is incredible.
The setting is Vietnam, a few years after the withdrawal of US troops. Mien is the wife of Hoan, a wealthy merchant; they have a son. Fourteen years earlier, she was married to Bon, a soldier believed dead. Within a few pages, all filled with imagery of a living, breathing, storming jungle, Bon returns to their small hamlet, surprising everyone by simply living. Out of duty, Mien returns to him. The novel tells the next year of their lives--Mien, playing the dutiful wife while deeply missing Hoan, who she loves; Bon, desperately trying to reassert his role as a husband while running out of money and health; and Hoan, trying to make a life without the woman he loves deeply.
Huong's imagery is among the most sensory I've ever encountered. The world she details comes to life around you as you read. In a single page, sometimes even a single sentence, the hot, damp, and often sensual landscape feels like it surrounds you. Every character is enigmatic; we cannot cast our own stock associations onto anyone. A reviewer noted that the greatest trait of the novel is the way Huong makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take sides. No one can win entirely. We just have to hope for the best possible outcome--which I believe comes with the end of the novel. I can't tell you what that is, not only because it would be a spoiler, but because it won't make sense.
I found it hard to believe how well I could sympathize with the characters, even though my modern western world is in an entirely different time and place from theirs. Huong gives a full personality to every character, except, perhaps, Mien. We know the least about Mien's emotion and experience at the end of the novel, and I think this is intentional. Mien ends up being "no man's land," always caught between the two men that love her and caught between duty and her heart. She must become her own, rather than someone else's. When the story closes, I believe she achieves this.
This is a hard book to read, not because of its difficulty or because it's a translated work (Nina Mcpherson's translation is readable and beautiful, as I've noted), but because the story is so sorrowful for so long. You ache for the characters to figure out a way to be happy again, yet for four hundred and some odd pages, it feels like nothing will change. Still, somehow, the end is life-affirming and the novel feels beautiful. Duong doesn't give us a lot of hope--her life and her place in her home country as a political prisoner and human rights advocate don't lend themselves to a happy outlook--but she does give us a little, just enough to make one feel that even if we feel our lives just drift along, they can and do drift towards something good, towards possibilities for good.
You can purchase this novel here, but I should note that a good portion of this book is extremely sensual and some of the content is mature. It's not gratuitous, though, which is why I found this novel so impressive.