Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
What distinguishes Caroline Vu from other authors writing on the Vietnamese-Canadian odyssey is the depth of her characters and her exposé of human interaction, shaped but not distorted by contemporary events. There is no self-pity in Vu’s writing, no regret for a country lost and no rationalization for the very human failings of her characters. Caroline Vu tells it as it is, with her ostensible calm thinly obscuring subliminal passion, if not compassion.
While her first novel, Palawan Story, dealt principally with the impermanence of identity, her latest work, That Summer in Provincetown, examines the unbreakable ties of kinship, for all their good and bad. Narrated by Mai, a Vietnamese woman now in her fifties, the plot covers seventy years and three generations of a Vietnamese family, displaced twice by war and whose fortunes rise and fall with the Spirit of the Times.
At the novel’s core is a single incident—the death of the narrator’s half-French, half-Vietnamese cousin, Daniel. In the early 1980s, Daniel, a beautiful rebel, has picked up an untreatable disease during his infamous summer escapades in Cape Cod’s playground for the rich and promiscuous—Provincetown. His family of three generations of physicians cannot bear to call the disease by its name, and as it progresses, family visits become rarer.
Angry and afraid, Daniel dies alone in a Montreal hospital. Even Mai, who had promised to be with him to the end, is a continent away. In France, Mai carries out Daniel's last wish—to find his estranged French mother. But Daniel’s death, so eloquently described, is but one of the family’s many tales of hypocrisy, deception, unacknowledged love and misfortune. And Daniel, the keeper of the family’s darkest secrets, has entrusted them all to Mai, who twenty-five years later shares them with her readers.
Readers may wonder whether this story is biographical, perhaps the author’s act of contrition, of punishment or a simple commemoration of a life extinguished before its time? However, That Summer in Provincetown is not a tale written out of vindictiveness. It is one where Vu’s eloquent voice and deep authenticity create beauty out of social disgrace and levity out of domination. Its literary merit is matched by rich historical research, offering an unadulterated Vietnamese perspective on French colonialism, Japanese occupation, the long civil war between the North and the South, and the massive American intervention in Vietnam.
Equally well articulated is the acculturation of the family in Canada—a story not told to tug at the hearts of Canadians, but laid out in very human terms. The universality of Caroline Vu’s subtle messaging distinguishes her as one of Canada’s most exciting emerging authors, and one who undoubtedly will earn in time a wide and loyal readership.
That Summer in Provincetown is published by Guernica Editions and will be launched on June 6, 2015 at the Prose in the Park Literary Festival in Ottawa. Caroline will join Vincent Lam and David Joiner on Prose in the Park's Under the Papaya Tree - Remembering Vietnam panel, moderated by Denise Chong.