The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy

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The Independent Culture

If you don't often read first novels, make an exception for this brief, elegiac work, which recreates in a skilfully shaped mosaic the life of a Vietnamese family who came as boat people to the US. It divides, like the life of the family, into two halves, each composed of vivid fragments, a diaspora of story-telling through which images of water run in a unifying stream.

If you don't often read first novels, make an exception for this brief, elegiac work, which recreates in a skilfully shaped mosaic the life of a Vietnamese family who came as boat people to the US. It divides, like the life of the family, into two halves, each composed of vivid fragments, a diaspora of story-telling through which images of water run in a unifying stream.

In the first half, "Suh-top!", the still-childish narrator tells the story of her life after arriving in America as a six-year-old with her father, known as "Ba", and four uncles. Her mother, My, has been accidentally left behind, shouting in the water. The name of the section, "stop" as pronounced by the narrator's horrified uncles, recalls the mother's cries as well as an incident where the child tries to release a butterfly from the middle of her host's paperweight by smashing it against the wall, getting the family thrown out of their haven.

They embark on a long trail of uneasy displacements. The mother, My, eventually arrives, but wherever they settle quickly becomes spoiled. One landlord demolishes an area beloved of Vietnamese exiles in order to build condominiums they can't afford; another anxiously concretes over the swimming-pool which the family loves, in the central courtyard, because boys are diving happily into it from the windows of their second-floor flats.

This image of daring, freedom and mortal danger gains depth in the second part, "the gangster we are all looking for", in which the narrator has grown up. She focuses more sharply both on the father she adores and on her brother, lost by drowning in Vietnam when he jumped, risking his life like the swimming-pool boys, from boat to boat. Though her parents still love each other, they are always exhausted, the mother an underpaid cook, and the father, with his specialist knowledge of herbs and plants, caring for the featureless green lawns that Americans demand.

When "Ba" gets drunk, they argue violently: My smashes crockery, and the fights escalate beyond the calmative powers the child's imagination possessed in the first half. Now, there is nothing to dull the blade of perception. Her beloved father is a drinker and a former gangster, and although "it is clear to everyone around us that we have become each other", her only way to escape is to run away - until the heart-breaking call comes that brings her home.

Le Thi Diem Thuy has a brilliant touch with physical detail, and a sorrowful universal wisdom about the power of previous generations to harrow us with our neglect of them, our abandonments. But the vision which ends the book shows her narrator opting for vigorous survival, leaving her parents, who stand on the beach "leaning into each other", behind, and running "like a dog unleashed" towards the spot where wave after wave of small silver fish is being washed up on the American shore, the "little mouths" of the new arrivals moving busily, "as if they could not get enough of the cool salt night air".

Maggie Gee's novel 'The Flood' is published by Saqi Books next month

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