Told in the father’s voice, it has the feel of an autobiography, and it straddles a tumultuous and fascinating period of Vietnam’s modern history, from French colonialism through Japanese occupation and then the American War; from the end of “feudalism” till the birth of Vietnam’s modern era.
Structurally, the multiple award-winning, 2009-published book switches between Thong’s early childhood during the French colonial period when he lives on his wealthy family’s country estate and then Hanoi, and his young adulthood, after he has fled to Saigon with his family as war with the north looms and he’s drafted into the army. We found this a little discombobulating, given the history of Vietnam is already thick with confusing alliances, and we felt that there was no good reason for it. We would have preferred a linear treatment as it was all so interesting, so we would have been compelled to continue reading without the interwoven teaser of the future.
That aside, Eaves of Heaven is an engrossing tale that poetically traverses multiple themes with ease: the futility of war; the intricacies of relationships between both family and friends; loyalty and trust; and the importance of place in forming identity.
Westerners often tend to view Vietnamese history purely through the prism of the American War there, but that war was simply one deadly upheaval that followed many others, including the brutal French colonial era, which saw Thong captured, chained and forced to act as a translator, and the even more brutal Japanese occupation, which led to a Great Famine that killed some one million Vietnamese. Thong lived through this all. At the end of the book he considers leaving Vietnam as a refugee by sea, and we are not privy to finding out what happens next. But an earlier book by the author, the also award-winning Catfish and Mandala (as yet we haven’t reviewed, but you can find it here), is about his own emigration to the United States, so we suspect the tale is picked up there.
We found ourselves highlighting half the book as we read. Some of the more memorable or revealing passages included Thong describing speaking in French to an interviewer because it was “more egalitarian than Viet… Generations of Vietnamese students spent lifetimes in classrooms speaking, writing, reading, and breathing French texts. So it did not seem ironic to me that we sat there, two North Vietnamese exiles in a dark and greasy noodle shop on the edge of Saigon, conversing in French when neither one of us had ever set foot in France.”
Thong poignantly describes the impact of endless war on average Vietnamese: “I thought of Aunt Thao’s husband, my cousin Quyen, Uncle Ti, my adopted brother Vi, my best friend Hoi, and my schoolmates from my village. Every person I knew had brothers, sons, cousins, or uncles on opposite sides of both wars: first the French, then the American. It was a conflict between brothers. No matter which side won, the family lost.”
More superficially, Thong makes interesting comparisons between Hanoi and Saigon, as it was then known, in the 1950s: “Every sidewalk was teeming with kiosk-diners filled with shirtless men drinking. People ate right on the street, their backs to the thrumming traffic, their heads swimming in engine exhaust. It was a sobering sight because in Hanoi only the expensive restaurants and bistros put tables on the sidewalks.” The historical descriptions of Phan Thiet, Da Lat and Rach Gia are also intriguing if you’ve been there in more recent times.
We loved the occasional evocative descriptions of food, an important constant in Vietnamese life no matter whether the backdrop is war or peace. Consider Thong’s description of cha ca, “a northern delicacy we were unlikely to encounter in the South. A waiter brought us two platters of raw sea bass filleted paper-thin and heaps of fresh lettuce, vegetables, pickles, cucumbers, and herbs. The cook followed with a sizzling pan of turmeric and garlic oil. He cooked the fish by pouring the hot oil directly on it… We chopsticked pieces of fish onto sesame crackers and topped them with basil, cilantro, lettuce, purple herbs, and a dab of an ash-coloured sauce made with fermented fish, fish sauce, chili, lime, and garlic. We quenched ourselves with litres of icy beer.” Hungry?
Given the current political climate, and given that if one does not learn from history one is condemned to repeat it, one perhaps instructive thing that struck us was how quickly the fortunes of Thong’s family changed: “In Hanoi, even our servants had better living quarters. It seemed amazing to me, the distance we had fallen within the span of five short years, from living like princes to eking out a living in a mud hole serving noodles.”
Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars is a modern part-history of Vietnam easily accessed thanks to its framing within a compelling biography. If you’re heading to Vietnam, we’d recommend including this in your top three books to read, along with The Sorrow of War and The Sympathizer. (For those with even more time on their hands, we’d be sure to squeeze in A Bright Shining Lie, as well.) You’ll come away with a grand overview of Vietnam’s recent history from the perspective of someone who has lived it.
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