This wonderful novel opens with a little lesson into the Viet language – one of the things I also love about Vietnamese:-
“In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country and a homeland are one and the same: nu’o’c.”
Especially for me, and my family, water is a particularly apt description of our country of origin. The place where all my siblings and I was born is surrounded by water – and then the families of the area create more water with which to thrive: dams and canals, huge vases containing drinking water and smaller ponds containing good luck fish.
But water is also an accurate depiction of how we, and the family in the novel, are carried to a new home country. My family traveled by boat to Malaysia, and then by plane to Australia. The young girl narrator of the novel – whose name we do not discover until near the very end – is carried by water with her Ba and four uncles to the shores of the United States of America. There, we learn that water separates her Ba and herself from wife and Ma; and that water has claimed her brother, who ghosts beside her as she navigates the sadnesses and struggles of her parents in a place far from family and familiarity. We also learn that water is the tie that binds her to her uncles, whose fate in the United States the novel loses track of, much the same way as a child forgets the people who are no longer part of her everyday life. Water recurs in her descriptions of her experiences in life.
The novel tracks back and forth in time but is written in the present tense. This gives Gangster a sense of a child’s memories and perceptions. It starts with the home in the US that she shares with her parents, then reverts in the very next paragraph to how she, her Ba and her uncles “float across the sea” to Singapore, then California. In one paragraph, the author condenses the actual migration from the beaches of Viet Nam to the shores of USA. At the same time, she manages to capture the sense of how difficult this journey was, its incomprehensibility and evasion of time, and a blinking arrival in a completely new, completely unknown and unexpected place. Her mother’s eventual reunion with husband and child is unremarked: one chapter, her mother is a figure on a faraway beach and the next, a real person in the child’s life. How father and daughter are separated from mother is narrated later still, as if the child only then recalls it, having been otherwise pre-occupied with learning English, wearing itchily starched dresses and discovering a new home. What must have been a short time spent obsessed by a butterfly trapped in amber takes an entire chapter to relay. And she ends, grown up but relating to her parents in the same way as a childhood night-time trip to the beach.
My partner and I, in an unrelated discussion, were talking about how readers find time-jumps disconcerting. Instead of disorienting the reader, Le Thi Diem Thuy’s narration is timeless in a most evocative fashion. The novel is a series of memories, narrated from the perspective of the child at the precise point in time in which that child is experiencing those memories. On reflection, the novel grows in its descriptive beauty and sharp eloquence.
In particular, I found that how she captured and explained her growth and distance from her parents resonated with me:-
“In the fall of the year I turned sixteen, I jumped out of my bedroom window and ran away. The night’s black roads wound like long stretches of river. … The streets ribboned out in all directions. I lifted first one foot and then the other, ready to run down all of them.”
I did not run away from home, but I did move interstate when I turned seventeen. It felt then as if all the paths I could take went forever away, all unknown and me all unknowing. And I wanted to take all of them unthinkingly and indecisively. The path I eventually chose – or may have had chosen for me – was one of return. In some ways, this was a braver decision that the one to leave, and I am pleased with how it has all turned out.
As may be evident, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The dust jacket informs me that this is Le Thi Diem Thuy’s first novel. It was published in 2003, and although the fact that I picked it up in one of those seconds book-stores does not bode well, I hope that she has written more and that they will float across the oceans from the US to me.