By Kien Nguyen
Little, Brown. 310 pp. $24.95 "The Tapestries" is a historical novel set in early-20th-century Vietnam. The author, Kien Nguyen, is the child of an American father and a Vietnamese mother who spent his formative years in Vietnam, coming to the United States as a teenager. According to an author's note at the end of the book, the novel was inspired by stories Nguyen's grandparents told him during his childhood about their own past. A highly embroidered and fanciful past it seems to have been, and from it Nguyen has woven a swashbuckling tale of peasants and pirates, evil punished and pure love requited.
In the opening scene, the 24-year-old heroine, Ven, is wedded to 7-year-old Dan Nguyen, in a marriage of inconvenience, as she soon finds out when she realizes she has been brought into the Nguyen family merely to serve as unpaid household help. Making the best of it, she befriends a servant and becomes attached to her young husband as a surrogate mother. She carries him on her back as she labors in the fields during the day, and cuddles him to sleep at night. When the patriarch of the family, Dan's father, is arrested as a pirate, Ven manages to save her young husband by hiding with him in a tree while the rest of the family is executed. The two escape in the guise of peasant mother and son, and to save his life, Ven sells the boy into servitude. The household she fixes on is that of an evil magistrate; but it is also, by chance, the place to which the woman who first befriended Ven also has escaped. Skip ahead nine years, and Dan has grown into a handsome young man who wins the favor of the magistrate's granddaughter, May.
The two become lovers but are torn apart by fate, only to reunite much later in the royal palace, where May has become a dancer and Dan works as an embroiderer of tapestries. Poor Ven has suffered unspeakable torture in the meantime, including having her tongue cut out. Yet Ven, too, finds true love in the form of the surly village outcast, who only needed someone to love him back. The threads of "The Tapestries" are tidily knotted in happy endings all around, and even the evil magistrate gets his comeuppance.
It's quite evident that, despite his Vietnamese upbringing, Nguyen writes squarely in a Western tradition in his depictions of the exotic East. The story also suffers from the "Shogun" syndrome, so-called after the popular novel by James Clavell, which readers familiar with Japanese culture have a hard time stomaching because so many of the small details do not ring true. One would like to trust the voice of a writer who grew up in the country he describes, but somewhere along the line, Nguyen simply seems not to have noticed his surroundings and instead falls into stereotypical Oriental descriptions. Vietnamese women did not bind their feet as the Chinese did, for example, yet one of Nguyen's characters has bound feet.
Reading a novel is an act of trust. The author should take readers firmly in hand as they allow themselves to be led into his created world. As long as we trust the author's mastery of the tale, magical realism can be just as convincing as a historical novel. But once the false notes start piling up -- even if they entail only minor errors, such as mistaking swallows for sparrows, or mentioning blood-red cherry blossoms (I'm only familiar with the pink or white variety) -- it becomes difficult to trust the author on other things as well. Obviously, if the story is gripping, not everyone will be bothered by botanical incongruities, yet the characters in "The Tapestries" are as one-dimensional as Peking opera figures.
When I have led workshops on writing historical fiction, I've noticed that many participants have been prompted to sign up because of their grandparents' life stories. They feel an obligation to do something with these precious tales they hold in memory, old letters, or trunks of memorabilia in their attics. Sometimes the writers are on personal quests, and their stories will never become manuscripts. Some will become manuscripts but will never be published. A few, like "The Tapestries," become books. But whereas a skillful writer uses imagination to pull a narrative together convincingly, paying attention to social, personal, cultural and even botanical detail to ground the story, Kien Nguyen's tale floats in a mist of exotic images that could just as easily have been conjured by someone who grew up in Wisconsin.