Here's a true dumb American confession: I have a hard time with historical novels that take place outside of the U.S. I'm not much of a history buff, and I find it takes a skillful, engaging author to both situate and dazzle me with beauty at the same time. Quan Barry, as it turns out, is just that kind of author. In her debut novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," the Saigon-born poet guides us through the history of modern Vietnam with a deft mix of folklore, magical realism and stories of struggle and hardship that feel yanked right out of history.
The book spans three turbulent decades, beginning with the unusual birth of a girl named Rabbit along the Song Ma River at the height of the Vietnam War, "under the full rabbit moon six feet below ground in a wooden box, her mother's hands cold as ice, overhead the bats of good fortune flitting through the dark." By 2001, when the narrative ends, she has become a living legend — in a "silvery room inside Rabbit's head," she hears and acknowledges the voices of the dead.
And Vietnam is filled with these dead, their bodies and ghosts and voices. It's "[a] nation of people who have been dying from war for over a thousand years. Everywhere their faces buried in the road." The novel is framed by a chorus of the dead, each chapter introduced with their eerie narration. They unroll the developing legend of Rabbit, the folklore and spirituality of Vietnam. They observe and they wait: "So many of us still here sleeping in the earth until someone decides it is time to sort us out and take us home."
Death pervades every section of the novel, which is structured around vivid snapshots of Rabbit's life at critical moments of Vietnam's history. She and her family flee south after the end of the war ("people pushing south as if just the word south could save them"); they try to escape with a crew of Cambodian refugees. She listens to both the living and the dead, and other narratives embed themselves in her experience — her grandmother's time at a rubber plantation in the days of French Indochina, an ex-prisoner's trials at a re-education camp.
Rabbit's gift allows her to bring a measure of peace and resolution to the rustling dead: "The simple act of someone hearing them, an acknowledgment, and then they can go wherever it is they go." Her acknowledgment is humane and apolitical, and as her psychic abilities bring her to prominence, she poses a threat to the war's northern victors, who would rather ignore the southern dead.
The novel is haunting and beautiful, its power multiplied by Barry's mastery of language. Her prose reads at times like poetry ("the innumerable flames like a flock of moons," "[t]he sound of the bees' thrumming a dark electricity"); at other times, it pierces, clear and spare ("Nobody said anything. And with that, they began to suspect one another."). She pulls off both a mystical talking parakeet and a page-long sentence written in the second person, both tricks I know better than to try at home.
With "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," Barry does her own part in acknowledging her homeland's dead. Like Rabbit, she taps into history and makes sure they are not forgotten. Through her voice, they are counted, their stories told. Our only task is to listen.
Cha is the author, most recently, of "Beware Beware."
She Weeps Each Time You're Born
Pantheon: 288 pp., $24.95