Jessie fights her way from her fraught childhood home to Paris, where she becomes a teacher. How she meets her wealthy French husband is one of many tightly held secrets. She is excited to arrive in Indochina with her husband and young daughter. There, where costs are low, her family can “finally live like Michelins.” Her story intertwines with that of Marcelle de Fabry, a Frenchwoman who lands in Hanoi in pursuit of her lover, Khoi, heir to a silk fortune.
Marcelle immediately befriends Jessie and is quick to provide advice — “Relax, my dear . . . This is Hanoi. It’s so much better than real life.” It soon becomes clear that the lovely and demure Jessie has much to hide if she is to carry out her role of enlightened French colonizer. Marcelle, too, is freighted with secrets, intent on avenging the death of a beloved friend, a communist sympathizer who was murdered.
Tanabe, a former reporter for Politico, did extensive research on the French role in Indochina. She pored over government documents and paints a picture of gross exploitation, including murder on the rubber plantations and other ruthless efforts to quell communist leaders whose aim was to bring education and health care to workers and their families, and to raise starvation wages.
Tanabe shows the gaping disparities between the life of leisure and richesse led by the French occupiers, and that of the oppressed Indochinese, who can barely scrape by. Abuses are rampant, and the French occupiers are blind to the disruption and inequities they sow. Au contraire — they see themselves as the great white hope, civilizers of the native population.
This is a book of secrets, but not of great subtlety. Where the reader could have been left to make inferences, the characters spell out their emotional conditions. The plot moves quickly, often in long passages of expository dialogue. Jessie, it turns out, is being gaslit from multiple corners. It will take her the length of the book to untangle what is happening to her, and why.
None of the main characters comes through unscathed; each has reasons for obfuscating. “A Hundred Suns” has a cinematic quality — which may be telling, given that Tanabe’s second novel, “The Gilded Years,” is being made into a film starring Zendaya. This view of French occupation in Indochina is replete with love affairs, revenge and secrets, not to mention a history lesson about the evils of colonialism.
Martha Anne Toll is a Washington-based fiction writer and book reviewer.
A Hundred Suns
By Karin Tanabe
St. Martin’s. 400 pp. $27.99