Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The Vietnam War (1964–1975) still casts a long shadow. While it wasn’t the US’s longest war (that dubious honour goes to the more recent war in Afghanistan), the death toll was vastly higher than anything since, and the social effects, though now distant, still resonate for a good deal of the American population. While the creation of an all-volunteer American Armed Services in 1973 put an end to the types of public protests the US experienced in the 1960s and early 1970s, the issues of race and economic inequality that also inspired them still percolate, occasionally boiling over.
Catinat Boulevard, the latest novel from author Caroline Vu, tells of lives affected by the Vietnam War in different ways, each of them struggling with questions of identity and belonging as events wash over them.
The story begins in 1966, where 13-year-old Mai is beginning to feel the pangs of adolescence. She is still haunted by the image of the Buddhist monk she saw immolate himself three years earlier as a protest against the corrupt Diem government. Vu, who was born in Vietnam, paints a detailed picture of the contrasting social practices and ideologies vying for supremacy during those years: the sophisticated and cosmopolitan legacy of the French, the conservative traditions of Buddhism, the privilege of the financially well-off, the struggles of the poor. Add to this the flawed utopian promises of communism and capitalism being bandied about by each side’s propagandists to manipulate people’s choices.
Vu shows effectively how, amid all this cultural tumult, people struggled to cling to the familiar and mundane aspects of life—school, playing with friends, family routines—while a war raged just over the horizon.
As Mai grows into adolescence, she feels constrained by tradition and is disdainful of its hypocrisies. She rejects much of her traditional Buddhist upbringing in favour of hanging out with a girl of a more modest background, Mai Ly, whose father sells beer on the street to American GIs. Eventually, she meets Michael, a Black US soldier. When she becomes pregnant by him, her family, out of shame, forces her to go to an orphanage run by nuns, where she gives birth and abandons the baby.
The story proceeds through the years, past the fall of South Vietnam, as each of the characters carries the pain of their personal losses with them as they try to create a new life for themselves—some under the new communist government in Vietnam, some as immigrants to the US, where they encounter the realities of American racism.
Vu’s tone, though, is not analytical. It is emotional. She has the characters, each in their own way, question their racial and cultural identity in their new surroundings and reflect on where and to whom they belong: to lovers, to family? And who is family, exactly? And what is love?
It is the first-person narrative of the child Mai abandoned that permeates the story-telling and gives voice to the search for identity as he grows to his own adolescence within the confines of the orphanage, the sole child of colour. As if to underscore this struggle, the child remains nameless for much of the book. Only when he is given a name does he start on the path of self-discovery.
Vu’s tapestry is rich and rewarding as it displays the numerous folds of identity a person possesses, without forcing her characters into confining definitions. The denouement is neither overly happy nor overly sad, but hopeful. A very rewarding read.
Catinat Boulevard is published by Guernica Editions in English, and in French, by Éditions de la Pleine Lune.