12+ Vu Tran's debut novel, Dragonfish, opens with a letter from a mother to her daughter, with whom she's lost contact. She recounts the first night of their escape from communist Vietnam, in a small, overcrowded boat, soon to be wracked by 'thirst and hunger, sickness [and] death'. The mother confesses she had not wanted to leave behind her homeland and husband and blamed her daughter for having done so.
The story travels in time and place to Oakland, California. A divorced American cop, Robert Ruen, learns his Vietnamese-born ex-wife, Suzy, who has remarried a violent Vietnamese restaurant owner, gambler and gangster, is missing in Las Vegas. At gunpoint, and because of his forlorn love for her, Ruen accepts the task of finding his ex-wife.
In the search for Suzy, Dragonfish shifts back and forth in perspective from Ruen's reflections on his failed marriage to the mother's letters.
From the reflections, we learn how Ruen and Suzy met; how he urged her to Americanise her name from 'Hong'; how she hadn't wanted children; how little they shared in common; how they fought, verbally and physically; and how she left him.
The reflections tell us how things happened, but not why, underscoring how little Ruen knew about his ex-wife, even after eight years of marriage.
From the letters, we learn of the mother's life in Vietnam; her love for her husband, a soldier in the Vietnam War, sent to a re-education camp by the Communists; her heartache at leaving him to flee the country; the perilous journey on the boat; and the long wait in a Malaysian refugee camp for offers of resettlement and a new life.
The letters are the mother's attempt to explain to her daughter why things happened and, most importantly, why she deserted her as a young child in America.
The reflections and the letters intersect in Las Vegas, and we realise they are written by Ruen's ex-wife, Suzy (or Hong). The significance of the title, Dragonfish, is alluded to by the son of the new husband, who tells Ruen the fish, which are endangered in the wild and sold illegally by the father and son, are 'supposed to bring good luck, keep evil away, bring the family together. Asians always love believing in that'.
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Dragonfish is a story of family and searches. The search for freedom of the Vietnamese boat people. The search for a new life in a new country. The search for identity. The search for love. And the search for an understanding of why relationships fail and families are torn apart.
Vu Tran's debut novel is an authentic and enjoyable read. Dragonfish offers insight into the Vietnamese migrant experience in America, but also the wider human condition. This reviewer looks forward to his next novel.
© 2016 Robert Fairhead
This review was published by Writing NSW in June 2016. It's an exceptional debut novel, that provides insight into the Vietnamese refugee experience in America and the pain of lost love.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.