REMAINS OF THE DAY: Reviewer Susan Soon He Stanton finds beauty and sensuality in Uyen Nicole Duong’s Daughters of the River Huong, an epic tale journeying from the ancient Kingdom of Champa to French colonialism to modern day New York City, all told through the eyes of an alluring but flawed heroine.
ISSUE: Summer 2011
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
Over the course of a tumultuous century, the stories of four generations of Vietnamese women unfold in a historical epic that shifts from Imperial City of Hue, war-torn Saigon, Paris, and ’90s New York City. For such an entertaining read, the amount of history author Uyen Nicole Duong packs into her pages is impressive. Even while painting a larger picture of Vietnamese culture, the focus never strays far from these daughters of the River Huong.
At the heart of the story is Simone, a petulant Indochine Lolita, who reveals the lives of her ancestors tracing back to the extinct Kingdom of Champa. Beginning with the Mystique Concubine, a paddle girl discovered by a king, to her daughters, Madame Cinnamon and Ginseng, and Simone’s mother, these survival stories trace the journey from the last Vietnamese monarchy to French colonialism, revolution and independence.
Reminiscent of sensual passages from French authors Colette and Marguerite Duras, Simone is described as a youthful object of desire, a child with “the eyes of a woman.” Now a successful New York lawyer, Simone pines for her lost adolescence and a forbidden relationship with an older French man named Andre. The relationship between Andre and Simone reflects the death of a nostalgic French romanticism in Vietnam and an uneasy transition into modernism and independence.
Simone, a selfish and complexly flawed heroine, lives in dangerous times and yet through luck and beauty remains out of harm’s way. More preoccupied with her love life than the fate of her country, Simone is a surprisingly unscarred product of four generations of female suffering. Readers may empathize more with some of Simone’s ancestors. One of the most compelling tales is that of Huyen Phi, the Mystique Concubine, who was a paddle girl on the Perfume River. Vying for her husband’s attention with more than a hundred of his other wives, Huyen Phi struggles with the confinement of palace life. Over time, she observes helplessly the overthrow of the monarchy and the banishment of her beloved husband. Another vivid story is the unhappy and violent life of the beautiful Auntie Ginseng, who loves magnolia blossoms and joins the revolution. Simone’s childhood observance of Ginseng’s homecoming is nothing short of breathtaking.
However, despite the novels many attributes — beautiful language, engaging characters and an ambitious historical scope — Daughters of the River Huong can be frustratingly creaky and inconsistent. For one, the novel might have been more successful in the third person instead of the first. A character will often pause in their narrative to impart lengthy expository information (useful for the reader, but inconsistent to character’s voice). At times, a character will use more modern language or words that can distract from the time period. Duong has the gift for poetic language and creates a vivid and luxuriant world. However, often a lighter touch would have sufficed, and some of her descriptions are so laden with exotic, poetic language that the writing borders on purple.
Nonetheless, Daughters of the River Huong is an impressive work of historical fiction and well worth the read. Beautifully realized and highly engaging, the intricately observed moments in Duong’s epic tale stand out as a unique glimpse into a world largely unfamiliar to most readers. This sweeping novel may remind the reader of Gone with the Wind with the more humanistic elements of The Joy Luck Club.
– Susan Soon He Stanton
More stories from Audrey’s Summer issue here.