Hello and welcome to my blog tour stop for Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s newest book, Dust Child! I was supposed to write a post about the progress I’ve been making on this story. Instead, here I am, writing a full review because of how invested I was in it. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai does it again with this book, infusing it with a gentle understanding and compassion that makes me such a huge fan of her writing. I read Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing in December 2022 and it marched its way onto my favorites of the year list. That (and more) made the author an instant favorite, propelling Dust Child into my most anticipated book releases of 2023 list.
And what a book it is!
If you’d like to read the shorter version of the review, here’s the Instagram post: TMB Review of Dust Child on Instagram.
For a reader like him, burning books was an incomprehensible act, and most people who didn’t even read would fight for the right to open any book they chose. Those in power feared free minds, and nothing unlocked thinking like literature.
At one point in the story, one of the main characters thinks this, after a particularly harrowing conversation that brings home revelations to him. I wondered about how he was able to call burning books an incomprehensible act (which it is). And I wondered how the act of war is never deemed incomprehensible, gruesome, gory, and violent as it is. It’s an interesting overlap, a study in human nature itself, this book, in addition to exploring how wartime changes people in incomprehensible ways. There’s that word again: incomprehensible. But it is apt, isn’t it?
Dust Child is the epithet given to the children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women conceived during the war. It’s not a flattering one, used most often derogatorily, and shows how society can be biased against the unknown. Society doesn’t stop to think about circumstances, or about how war festers like a rot within the very fabric of humanity. Even so, how does it decide who gets to be a part of humanity and who does not?
In this book, we follow an Amerasian son trying to find his family in 2016, a war veteran returning to Vietnam in 2016 with his wife to confront his demons and what only he knows is the truth, and a love story taking place in 1969-70. These three tracks are equally immersive, each making you think and each making you want to find out whether the characters found what they were looking for. All of them have unlikeable streaks to them, but desperation and despair will have you doing things out of your knee in order to find the truth. These characters are proof of that. And these stories will have you examining everything you know about people and the extent to which they can and will go, most of it unsavory at best.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai writes about people affected by the war, but we aren’t usually shown the action. That doesn’t mean we don’t see the destruction, the collateral damage. In fact, her stories concern civilians, a demographic that is more often than not lumped up in numbers. We see their lives, their hopes, the way they fight for normalcy in a time of strife, the way they have to plan their lives around the whole gore surrounding war, their relationships, the rare peals of their laughter that sound strangely sharp against the grim atmosphere outside the four walls of the house, the tears that flow more freely than ever because there is so much reason to – it’s a lot.
While in The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote with kindness and compassion, Dust Child takes on a rawer, grittier tone. Have no doubt about it, it is still kind and compassionate – you cannot take that from the author because she is someone with hordes of it within her. But it also becomes 10 times more personal, for you’re seeing war from a closer angle than before. The ‘action’, the effect, the people, the emotions – everything is now in stark relief, something that does anything but relieve the heart of the weight that they place on it.
Trying to articulate my feelings about Dust Child is pulling me up short and leaving me at a loss for words. How do I tell you what I felt when I read about little abandoned children on the streets, fighting for their lives? How do I tell you about the anger that the absolute indifference to their plights birthed in me? The fighting for a life lived but not for a life abandoned, for a life deemed ugly and worthless by so many elements of society, they begin to think they ARE ugly and worthless? How do I go back in time and wrap my arms around these children and console them and tell them that they are precious? How?
Every one of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s books makes me want to go up to her and embrace her, for writing strong, inspirational women, for being one, and for bringing so much light and love into the world. You’d think it was impossible to do it while writing the story of a ravaged people and war. But the author proves otherwise. And for that and more, I respect her so, so much!
If you are reading this, thank you, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, for writing, for telling these stories, for being. The world is a better place because of you. ❤
If you’d like to read my review of The Mountains Sing, here’s where you can find it:
Blog Review for The Mountains Sing
Instagram Review for The Mountains Sing
So that was my review of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s latest book, Dust Child.
What did you think of this book review? Did you like it? Do you think you’ll pick this book up based on my review? (PLEASE DO!) Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
I’ll see you in the next blog post.
Until next time, keep reading, and add melodrama to your life! 😊