Many times while I was reading Houston attorney/novelist Uyen Nicole Huong’s Daughters of the River Huong, I felt like I was reading a (much) shorter and more multi-generational Gone with the Wind. There are tough (however feminine-looking) female survivors in the forefront. Though there is no analog to Rhett Butler, there is an Ashley Wilkes or too, conscientious but defeated. The first is the Nguyen prince who will become king Thuan Thanh. In the years around 1900 the kingdom of Annam with its capital in Hue is a French puppet in what is officially a protectorate but for all practical purposes is a colony. He plucks a boat-paddler from the River Huong (often called the “Perfume River” in English). She is not only a commoner, but is of Cham descent (the Kingdom of Champa ceased to exist in 1692). The “paddle girl” is remade into the Mystique Combine. If she were to bear a son who became crown prince, she could have been designated queen, but what everyone assumed was this son turned out to be female twins, Princess Cinnamon and Princess Ginseng.
The French Resident Superieur, Sylvain Foucault, finds Thuan Thanh both to expensive to maintain and insufficiently pliable, forces him to abdicate and ships him off to exile off the African coast on the island of Reunion. The Mystique Concubine takes the insignia of a queen mother and sets up a silk farm to provide for her daughters, the elderly eunuch who has protected her in court, and the servant who has taught her to read.
The Japanese occupation is largely passed over. Ginseng and a younger brother join the Viet Minh and wars against the re-establishment of French colonialism after World War II, captured, tortured and driven mad by the French.
Cinnamon’s grand-daughter Simone is forced by her parents to leave her grandmother’s palatial villa in Hue for a Saigon apartment. The ten-year-old Simone will get her parents and siblings out of Saigon before it falls to the communists (her grandmother refusing to leave) by marrying an American journalist 15 years her senior, Christopher Sanders (the closest to a Rhett Butler rescuer character in the novel, though far more diffident and who does not fathering a child with Simone).
Simone remains in love with André Foucault, the grandson of the French official who forced her great-grandfather off the throne and otherwise outraged the Mystique Concubine. Though André seeks forgiveness for his grandfather’s deeds (and attitudes), he is weaker than Ashley Wilkes, and succumbs to the seductive underage Simone, generating an immense load of guilt.
Simone borders on being a sexual predator on older men. There is no question that she is the one exercising agency, saving her family via Christopher and wrecking André’s marriage.
Simone eventually returns to Vietnam as a privileged American corporate lawyer and finds out what happened to her beloved grandmother (Cinnamon) and the great aunt she barely knew (Ginseng). She visits places she lived, and may yet rebuild her own Tara (her great-grandmother’s silk farm).
The sex in Uyen Duong’s novel is not much more graphic than that in Margaret Mitchell’s though notably more pederastic (with young women manipulating adult males, Vietnamese, French, and American). There is some remarkably bad writing in both novels, and multiple strong-willed women not merely surviving but prospering in Duong’s. Sometimes I was caught up in the narrative of catastrophes (geopolitical turmoil as it affected the matrilineal line (Cham inheritance, historically, was matrilineal, btw), sometimes I cringed at what these women did and at what happened to some of them.
I guess that, like GWTW, DRH is “chick lit,” though readers of English who are more interested in Vietnamese experience of colonialism (French), neocolonialism (American and Soviet), and civil wars from the perspective of defeated southerners (mostly those who escaped, but eventually there is material on those who were not able to get out) than in materially advantageous interethnic and interracial sexual relationships may also appreciate the book. The love story strikes me as a structural reversal of the diffident and pederastic sexual liaison in Saigon-born Marguerite Duras’s thrice-told tale of an interracial sexual relationship in the French colony of Vietnam (The Sea Wall, The Lover, The North-China Lover).
I’d have preferred the book to have started with the paddle girl rather than the successful attorney, and I guess that my suspension of disbelief as less willful for the parts set longest ago and in the present. I’m not sure I wanted more about the Simone’s parents, though I noticed that there was much less about that generation than about the preceding two and the present(-tense) one.
I am very grateful for the aid of genealogy and dramatis personae listings at the start of the book.
BTW Uyen Duong was 16 when airlifted out of Saigon in 1965 and has emphasized that she is not Simone, though she has experienced the cultural dislocations (and the American legal profession. The next volume of her trilogy, Mimi and Her Mirror, centers on Simone’s younger (by four years) sister Mimi, who also became an attorney in the US.