Jul 31, 2014 by Lan Cao, in The Lotus and the Storm
THE LOTUS AND THE STORM, by Lan Cao, Viking August 2014

Written with acute psychological insight and poetic flair, this deeply moving novel illuminates the ravages of war as experienced by a South Vietnamese family.

In a rewarding follow-up to her well-received debut, Monkey Bridge (1997), the author returns to the conflict that shaped her own destiny before she was airlifted from her native Saigon to live in Virginia. Here, she shows what happens to a family of four—a South Vietnamese airborne commander, his beautiful wife and their two young daughters—as the war challenges loyalties with betrayals. The story is narrated by two characters: Mai, the younger daughter, who recalls her girlhood as the war intensified from her current home in Virginia; and Minh, her father, who's living with Mai and with his memories of what transpired in Vietnam 40 years earlier. “Saigon still wraps itself around me and squeezes me with sudden force,” he explains, though the traumatic effects on Mai prove stronger and even stranger. What’s plain from the setup, with its alternating voices, is that only half of this family will be telling the story, a story in which what happened to the other two proves crucial. The novel’s most complex figure is Quý, Mai’s mother and Minh’s wife, from whom the reader never hears but whose depth of character reveals itself through the perspectives of others. She made a sacrifice by marrying a man considered below her, and she continued to make sacrifices, some of which seemed like betrayals, to protect the lives of those she loved, including her Viet Cong brother as well as her husband. Mai can't really comprehend through a child’s eyes what's happening with her family and how threatened their future is, though she intuitively senses that something is wrong. Even Minh doesn’t doesn’t realize until decades later what really happened, and the revelations will surprise the reader as well.

A novel that humanizes the war in a way that body counts and political analyses never will.