Fall from Grace

Reviewed by Martha Sherrill
Sunday, July 20, 2008


A Life in Three Wars

By Andrew X. Pham

Harmony. 297 pp. $24.95

In 1802, a war hero named Hao Pham was awarded a vast tract of land in the fertile flatlands in the north of Vietnam. He'd won several battles that had led to the unification of his country. For this, he became the lord of a large manor with thousands of peasants and lived out his days in supreme comfort. A string of male descendants succeeded him, each becoming richer and more powerful than the last. Under French colonial rule, the Pham estates expanded further.

The Eaves of Heaven describes the gradual undoing of this vast and elaborate dynasty, the cataclysmic disintegration of a country, and the series of dramatic misfortunes that befell the great-great-great-grandson of Hao. Poised to inherit everything, Thong Pham instead lost it all, as Andrew X. Pham, his son, recounts in this gorgeously written book. But this is not ultimately a story of loss and upheaval, nor is it simply a retelling of Vietnam's war-torn history from a Vietnamese point of view. Many other books have ably covered that ground. The Eaves of Heaven is something entirely new: an effort to recapture the moments of beauty and transcendence that emerged from these events.

Andrew Pham covered some of this ground previously in his acclaimed travel memoir, Catfish and Mandala, but in telling the life story of his own father, he seems to have risen to a new level of quiet and powerful storytelling. Aware that his father's story, which he tells in his father's voice, is strong enough to require no enhancements, he is restrained, never sensationalizing.

The Eaves of Heaven is built from a series of short vignettes -- some sweet, some horrifying -- which are not recounted in chronological sequence, but linked in a narrative that darts nimbly across time, lingering on haunting scenes of brutality and violence as well as of beauty and love. Around every corner there are startling discoveries and juxtapositions caused by the shuffled chronology: misery followed by a gentle love scene or sumptuously described food. (Andrew Pham once was a food critic, and his book can be painful to read if, like me, you don't live within driving distance of a good Vietnamese restaurant.)

It's the absence of chronology that gives Thong's story its magic and depth, and allows it to be sustained by his observations of the ephemeral and the descriptions of unforgettable characters. Colorful personalities appear -- cousins, aunties, half-siblings, stepmothers, neighbors -- and reappear, sometimes to perish or be executed, victims of the crushing internecine and geopolitical conflicts that Vietnam endured for decades. The country becomes a character, too, like a person being slowly tortured and dismembered. When we encounter the orphan boy that the 9-year-old Thong and his cousin found in a barn during the Great Famine of 1944, it's impossible not to think of him as a kind of human stand-in for Vietnam itself:

"One afternoon, when Tan and I were playing hide-and-seek, we found a boy bundled in a blanket beneath a pile of hay at the back corner of the barn. Shriveled and bloated with starvation, he looked like some sort of bug, all head and belly, big-eyed and heaving ribs, almost hairless, semi-conscious and possibly mute. He was past talking. It appeared he had crawled into the stable to die."

The following year, there were so many dying people on the roadsides of the family estate that decaying body parts became a common sight and were transformed into macabre playthings.

"I remembered kicking a skull. There were many. My friends and I picked one that was detached from a body. It was round enough to roll like the grapefruits we once used. Bouncing across the dirt, it had no human feature. Ravens had picked the eye sockets clean."

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