Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Today I am delighted to share my thoughts on Dust Child, the brand new novel from author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the blog tour invite and to publisher One World Publications for the advance copy for review. Here’s what the book is about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 20 April 2023
Publisher: One World

About the Book

In 1969, two sisters from rural Việt Nam leave their parents’ home and travel to the bustling city of Sài Gòn. Soon their lives are swept up in the unstoppable flames of a war that is blazing through their country. They begin working as ‘bar girls’ in one of the drinking dens frequented by American GIs, forced to accept that survival now might mean compromising the values they once treasured. 

Decades later, two men wander through the streets and marketplaces of a very different Sài Gòn: modern, forward-looking, healing. Phong – the son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman – embarks on a search to find his parents and a way out of Việt Nam, while Dan, a war veteran, hopes that retracing the steps of his youth will ease the PTSD that has plagued him for decades.

When the lives of these unforgettable characters converge, each is forced to reckon with the explosive events of history that still ripple through their lives. Now they must work out what it takes to move forward in this richly poetic saga from Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai at her very best.

My Thoughts

I studied the conflict in Vietnam as part of my degree. American history formed a key part of my studies and I actually spent a semester being taught by a Vietnam Vet. My dissertation was on cultural representations of the war. It is a part of history that struck a chord with me, and it is perhaps no surprise that Miss Saigon has been one of my favourite shows for some time. But it took a visit to Vietnam for myself, and listening to how the Vietnamese view the war to really understand that there are two sides to every story. That maybe it should be viewed not as the Vietnam War but the American war in Việt Nam. Whichever way you view it, whichever side of the conflict people may have been on, in reality there were no winners – too many lives lost and others change irreparably.

With Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, we meet four very different characters, all of whom have been affected by the war in their own way. Dan is a Vet who served only a short time in the war as a Helicopter pilot, but who has been haunted by the loss he witness and the atrocities that occurred for which he wants to make reparations. Phong is one of the bụi đời , a child born of Vietnamese and American heritage, left by his mother at an orphanage and now on a quest to find his birth parents. And finally we have Trang and Quỳnh, sisters who move to Sài Gòn in order to earn money to support their parents and pay off debtors. Using a narrative that takes us from present day Hồ Chí Minh City to the Mekong Delta, and back to the Sài Gòn of 1969, the author shows us the way in which all of the stories intersect and how one event from the past can create ripples which that are felt nearly fifty years later.

This is a beautiful story which is both steeped in tragedy but also able to create a feeling of hope. It’s a tale of love and loss, of family and of forgiveness which highlights the atrocities of war and the things that people were forced to do in order to survive. This is not a story of the war, more its impact and, as such, whilst we are told of the casualties of war, it is not the focus. This is very much the story of the four characters, Dan, Phong, Trang and Quỳnh, although of the sisters it is Trang’s story we concentrate on more. When she and Quỳnh move to Sài Gòn, the start work at the Hollywood Bar, entertaining American GIs. Whilst Quỳnh seems to find it easy to adjust to this new life, Trang, known within the bar as Kim, struggles with giving up the virtues which she has held dear. It is only the thought of her parents and the help the money will give them that sees her able to continue. At least until she meets, Dan. Dan doesn’t demand anything of her. Dan is different. At least in the beginning.

Despite the mistakes made in the past, I actually quite liked Dan. he is clearly affected by the war, suffering PTSD and survivors guilt at having left Kim behind. He is married, as with many Vets, and in many respects his and is wife Linda’s story reminded me of Chris and Ellen in Miss Saigon. That knowledge that the life Dan left in Vietnam has no bearing on his life with Linda, and yet he needs to learn to be honest about all aspects of his life in the war if he is ever to find peace. I could sympathise with both Dan and Linda, and the author has been careful to be representative of the many GIs who signed up thinking they were fighting for justice and an ideal, only to learn that nothing was as they had been told. That the racism and hate which infected their speech and actions, were fuelled by fear and a lack of understanding.

As for Phong, his mixed race heritage had served to blight his whole life. Left by his mother, hated by the other children and families around him for being Amerasian, his was a truly moving story. Along from the age of twelve, he had to fight hard to survive, stealing and sleeping rough, just as many of the other bụi đời, and it would take a very hard heart to condemn him for his actions. When we meet him he is trying to obtain a visa to head to America, and it is only after this in denied that we learn his full story, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai taking us back to the time when he lost the only constant in his life, Sister Nhã, who had kept him safe ever since they had been forced from the orphanage. I admired his spirit and his determination, felt true emotion at the hardships he faced, and joy as his story is slowly resolved.

Beyond the love story between Trang/Kim and Dan , which takes underpins a good proportion of the story in 1969, there is so much emotion which infuses this novel. I actually found myself close to tears at times, the utter tragedy of the whole story so hard to read. The author has captured the spirit of the country, the sight and sounds of war, the pain and rejection felt by the dust children, and the joy and beauty of love which transcends language and culture, just perfectly in a narrative which is beautifully lyrical at times and completely emotive. It is a touching tale, one that highlights the plight of Amerasians, and of veterans of war, no matter which side of the conflict the character were one. There is one particularly poignant scene, where Dan and his guide, Thiên, meet a former VC soldier, someone who they would almost certainly have fought against, which goes to show the absolute power of forgiveness. It brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it now.

If you would like to read an alternative take on the conflict in Vietnam, one based not on the war itself but the impact on those who survived it, then I would definitely recommend this book. I have read a number of books on the war but none has moved me the way Dust Child has. Perhaps it is because I am older, maybe just a touch wiser (although probably not), but there was something about this book, the effortless narrative and the memorable characters, which engaged me from the very first chapter. I know I’ll be looking up some of the other books recommended by the author too. It’s a good reminder that there are two sides to every story. Understanding is simply a matter of changing your perspective.

About the Author

NGUYỄN PHAN QUẾ MAI is an award-winning Vietnamese poet and novelist. Born in the Red Delta of Northern Việt Nam, she grew up in the Mekong Delta, Southern Việt Nam. She is a writer and translator who has published eight books of poetry, short stories and non-fiction in Vietnamese. Her debut novel and first book in English, The Mountains Sing, is an international bestseller, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and winner of the 2021 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Literary Award, the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship, and others, and has been translated into fifteen languages. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and her writing has appeared in various publications including the New York Times.

Quế Mai was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of the twenty most inspiring women of 2021. Dust Child is inspired by her many years working as a volunteer helping family members unite, and reflects the real-life experiences of Amerasians and their family members.

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