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Duong Thu Huong: Chốn Vắng (No Man’s Land)

Mien is happily married to Hoan. She loves him and he loves her. They have a young son, Hanh, of whom they are proud. Hoan is well off. He has worked hard and, because of flat feet, did not serve in the Vietnam War. They own a lovely house, with more amenities than others in the village. Hoan continues to work hard and life is good for them. At the very beginning of the novel Mien is out with the other women of the village, Mountain Hamlet. When she returns there is a crowd awaiting her. Bon, her first husband, long since assumed to have been killed in the War, has returned home. Mien has no desire to return to him but a lot of pressure is put on her both by her neighbours and by the local party committee as Bon is considered a war hero. Mien very reluctantly agrees to do so. This novel is both the story of what happens to Bon, Mien, Hoan and Hanh but also what happened to them before to lead them to where they are.

Bon and Mien – they are the same age – were married very young. It was the custom for young women to marry young men who were about to join up, so that they could have a bit of happiness before they went off to war. Bon and Mien were selected together and were happy for a brief time before Bon went off to war. We learn later in the novel what happened to Bon and it was not, of course, a pleasant experience for him. Of his unit of 880 men, only seven survived. One particular incident is recounted in detail, when their unit is strafed by American planes. Bon is very close to his sergeant and looks up to him as a big brother and mentor. The sergeant is wounded and Bon tries to help him but the sergeant dies in his arms. Bon spends considerable effort trying to protect the body and take it with him. But Bon is weak. There is no food and little water. The vultures are also hungry and constantly gnaw at the body, despite Bon’s best efforts to keep them away. When Bon is finally found by a Vietcong patrol, he is emaciated and weak and has only a skeleton to show for his efforts. But it is not over. He hears that his unit is nearby and follows them but is too late, as they have moved on. He ends up in Laos where he finds a mute woman living on her own and stays with her for quite some time. Again he hears about his unit and sneaks away from her and, eventually, makes his way back to Mountain Hamlet.

Hoan had been ambitious when young (he is seven years older than Bon and Mien). However, Kim and her mother has trapped him into marriage. However, at the wedding reception, he speaks out against the entrapment and never lives with Kim. When Kim becomes pregnant (by someone else) he is able to get a divorce but at the cost of supporting Kim’s baby. He and Mien meet by chance, fall in love and marry and are happy till Bon’s return.

Bon’s return, once the excitement is over, turns sour. He shares a hut with Ta, his promiscuous and slovenly sister. She has three young children with her (but the father is long gone) and they are permanently broke and the children are always playing in the mud or scrounging for food. A temporary divide is made between Ta’s half of the hut and the half for Bon and Mien. However, there is little there as Bon has returned broke. Mien has to make do with broken bowls and Ta’s scrounging kids. Fortunately Hoan gives her some money to help her. Bon, however, has his own problems. He is weak and ill. More importantly, for him, he is impotent. He desperately wants a child so that he can cement his relationship to Mien, as he strongly feels her resentment, but is unable to have sex with her. Matters are not helped by the fact that he has particularly foul-smelling breath. He tries various remedies, both traditional and Western, but without success. He also tries hard to work on his plantation but he is too weak to do much. Without the help of Hoan’s money and his friend, Xa, he would have found it difficult to survive. Xa recommends that he give up Mien and goes to work on a camp, where are there are a lot of single and widowed woman but he loves Mien and wants to stay with her.

Meanwhile, Hoan is visiting prostitutes with his friends. Despite a very detailed description of his adventures, Hoan is not happy and still misses and loves Mien. Eventually Bon is given a remedy that will help his impotence – strong coffee with salt – and this works. It has the effect of making him ill for several months but he does manage to make Mien pregnant. She is, of course, devastated and thinks about getting an abortion but decides against it. However, though the ending is far from happy, we do get a resolution. While this is a fine book, I always had the feeling that the main story – what happens when a supposedly dead husband turns up again – was not enough to fill a book and that Duong somewhat padded it out with both Bon’s story in the War and Hoan’s story with the prostitutes, both of which take up a significant amount of the book.

Publishing history

First published in English 2005 by William Morrow