In her debut novel, Monkey Bridge, Lan Cao explored a mother-daughter relationship in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, highlighting the generational differences in immigrant experiences. Seventeen years later, Lan Cao tackles some of the same themes in The Lotus and the Storm.
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In many ways, Cao’s new novel is very similar to her first. Her characters leave Vietnam and settle in Virginia. We see the growth of small Vietnamese American communities. The pacing is thriller-like. Even the protagonists in both novels are named Mai.
But this is perhaps where the similarities end. Whereas Monkey Bridge was coming-of-age story informed by history, The Lotus and the Storm’s is a circular and obsessive story where the past doesn’t simply inform the present, they are at times the same. This is best echoed by the structure of the novel itself as it alternates between the narratives of Minh and his daughter Mai.
The novel starts in Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon. It is an idyllic existence—the war is still far away, limited to rural areas—where Mai’s mother reads her bedtime stories from the Tale of Kieu and the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and her sister dreams of winning the Nobel Prize some day in the far future. As a military commander, Mai’s father is often away, but they know him as a hero. Evenings, they visit an American GI named James stationed nearby and listen to the Rolling Stones as he takes their picture.
From this innocent beginning, the story begins to split as we move to present-day Virginia in “a small complex housing an amalgam of transplants displaced and dislocated from the world over” where Mai’s father is an aging man and Mai is a librarian for a law practice, despite having a law degree: “She is a librarian. Her work supports theirs. And in this self conscious space that is defined by power and rank, she is content to stand on the periphery.” Clearly, history has not been kind to father and daughter. Mai, once an energetic and curious child, is now reserved and quiet, content with her mechanical life as an office worker. Her father, on the other hand, is aging, bed-ridden, and suffering from flashbacks and hallucinations prompted by news coverage of the Iraqi War: “I hear of continuing fights in embattled cities along the Euphrates,” he says. “Everything now occurs here, the way it occurred there so many years ago.”
As the story alternates between past and present, we learn the scars of war are far from healed. Minh suffers from post-trauma stress disorder, while his daughter has developed dissociative identity disorder after the war arrives to Cholon and her parents’ marriage begins to deteriorate under the strain of loss and the stress of survival in a war-torn country. Her alter ego, Bão, comes to take over part of the narrative, creating a story of three voices that Cao masterfully balances, with each narrator having their own distinctive voice as well as pain birthed from a history of betrayal and violence.
In a way, the story of each character serves as metaphor for not only grief created from war and the losses associated with it—loss of a country, loss of a home—but also loss of the self. Describing Mai, Bão proclaims, “She is, in truth, neither the past nor the present. She is somewhere in between.” Cao’s characters live half lives—they live neither in the present nor the past. Like ghosts, they live haunted lives. Minh exemplifies this defeated feeling when, after arriving to the United States, he mutters to his daughter, “I am here, waiting for something to happen and I don’t know what.”
Unmistakably, The Lotus and the Storm is a war novel. Cao lays out scenes of battles and violence as well as the strategic planning behind it all. It is also an insightful examination of the political dimensions of war and an indictment of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam during the Cold War era. As the war comes to its end, Minh imagines American politicians clamoring for an exit strategy: “I imagined Kissinger skirting the room. I could see the slow fluid shuffle, the calamitous face. He had some calculating to do. There was Congress to deal with. There was the matter of American pride, American projection of power, still necessary to maintain the American empire.” Mai later highlights the irony of the Vietnamese American immigrant experience: “We are going to America, the country that both betrays and redeems.”
Like Cao’s first novel, The Lotus and the Storm is also a novel about familial relationships and the inability to heal bonds broken by grief. Minh and Mai go through the same war, but instead of creating a vocabulary of shared experiences, the relationship stretches itself to its limits. As Minh tries to cope with his daughter’s illness, he reflects, painfully: “I am better able to understand the loss of the war and my country than I am ever able to understand the loss of my daughter and my wife.”
The Lotus and the Storm works on multiple levels as a novel about war, politics, family, mental illness, and grief. Cao is also a master stylist, moving from scenes of violence:
“All around me were people who had lost arms and legs. I fixed my gaze on the dead and wounded lying inert and the many doctors working in brooding silence as the rain slashed with keening rage against the window panes.”
To scenes of tranquil beauty:
“Next to the mango [tree] is our star fruit tree, its branches bearing green fruits the shape of a five-point star. It is how starlight tastes, my sister says.”
Indeed, it is a novel of epic proportions, spanning decades, emotions, themes and voices. Through this complex story, Cao poses the same question as her characters: “How much, if at all, do we recover from the loss of love? How much, if at all, do we let go of grief, even as we proclaim the need to leave it in the past?” Like all good novels, The Lotus and the Storm asks questions with no simple answers. We are left heartbroken and astounded.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen is a writer from Maryland. He has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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