Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
From the bestselling author of The Mountains Sing, a richly poetic and suspenseful saga about two Vietnamese sisters, an American veteran, and an Amerasian man whose lives intersect in surprising ways, set during and after the war in Việt Nam.
In 1969, sisters Trang and Quỳnh, desperate to help their parents pay off debts, leave their rural village to work at a bar in Sài Gòn. Once in the big city, the young girls are thrown headfirst into a world they were not expecting. They learn how to speak English, how to dress seductively, and how to drink and flirt (and more) with American GIs in return for money. As the war moves closer to the city, the once-innocent Trang gets swept up in an irresistible romance with a handsome and kind American helicopter pilot she meets at the bar.
Decades later, an American veteran, Dan, returns to Việt Nam with his wife, Linda, in search of a way to heal from his PTSD; instead, secrets he thought he had buried surface and threaten his marriage. At the same time, Phong—the adult son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman—embarks on a mission to find both his parents and a way out of Việt Nam. Abandoned in front of an orphanage, Phong grew up being called “the dust of life,” “Black American imperialist,” and “child of the enemy,” and he dreams of a better life in the United States for himself, his wife Bình, and his children.
Past and present converge as these characters come together to confront decisions made during a time of war—decisions that reverberate throughout one another’s lives and ultimately allow them to find common ground across race, generation, culture, and language. Immersive, moving, and lyrical, Dust Child tells an unforgettable story of how those who inherited tragedy can redefine their destinies with hard-won wisdom, compassion, courage, and joy.
Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s debut novel, The Mountains Sing, was one of my favorite books of 2021. So I was super excited to hear that she was publishing a new book this year.
Dust Child is a moving saga about the Việt Nam War, its effect on the Vietnamese people, and its lasting impact on a generation of American men. The novel is told through dual timelines, 1969 Sài Gòn and 2016 Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), as you learn about the city and its residents in wartime and in peace. Dust Child is ultimately a story about hidden trauma, family secrets, forgiveness, and redemption.
Nguyễn leads readers on a suspenseful, heart-wrenching journey through the stories of a Vietnamese woman, an Amerasian orphan, and an American GI. Many times throughout Dust Child I did not know where things were going next. I even gasped at the last twist. So while this book is historical fiction and based upon real experiences, it was easy to become completely immersed in the story and breeze through it in one sitting.
Dust Child is beautifully written with a rich infusion of Vietnamese language and culture. Nguyễn’s writing is propulsive yet lyrical. I found the novel to be emotionally evocative even when I was angry at the decisions a character was making. I was impressed by Nguyễn’s ability to tell a such a complex and powerful story from a neutral point of view. It felt like she was simply recounting three stories as told by the individuals who experienced them. Yet, Dust Child encapsulates and imparts the characters’ histories and lasting psychological scars.
I always learn a great deal from Nguyễn’s novels. It is crazy to admit, but I did not truly know why the war was fought prior to reading. While I was aware of children born to American soldiers and Vietnamese women, I was unfamiliar with their plight in Việt Nam and the term Amerasian. And although I have witnessed the long-term effects of the war on family members, I knew little about its lasting effects and repercussions in the country where it occurred. Dust Child taught me about all of those things and more. It should be noted that Nguyễn wrote this novel after extensive research and interviews conducted as part of her PhD.
I have very few criticisms of Dust Child. Some of the dialogue felt a bit stilted, but I simply chalked this up to the kind of translation occurring during conversations. And if I am nitpicking, I did not feel as emotionally moved as I did reading The Mountains Sing. I think adding just a little more depth to the characters would have solved this.
Still, Dust Child is a book that reminded me why I read. I was transported to a different place and time to learn about history, previously unknown to me, through characters whose feelings impacted my own. It is a story that I will think about for a long time to come. I highly recommend this book and The Mountains Sing. I will be reading anything Nguyễn publishes in the future.
March 14, 2023
Note: I received an e-galley of this book from its publisher, Algonquin Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.