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Hoa Pham, Lady of the realm (#BookReview)

November 10, 2017

Hoa Pham, Lady of the realmHoa Pham was one of the participants at the recent Boundless Festival (my post), so it’s rather apposite that her latest work, Lady of the realm, popped up as my next review copy. The very brief author bio on the Festival site describes the novel as “about a Buddhist clairvoyant in Vietnam”. Well, it is, but it’s about far more than that too.

Vietnamese-Australian Hoa Pham was born in Hobart after her Vietnamese parents went there to study in the 1970s. She has written several novels, children’s books, plays and short stories, but her novella, Lady of the Realm, is the first that I’ve read. It’s a slim book, a novella in fact, told first person in a chronological sequence that covers nearly five decades from 1962 to 2009. If you know your south-east Asian history, you’ll realise that this time-span starts during the Vietnam or American War (depending on your perspective.)

It’s quite a challenge to cover such a long and tumultuous period in less than 90 pages, but Pham achieves it by keeping her focus tight – to the experience of the Buddhist monk Liên. Before we meet her formally though, there is a short prologue, which is also in her voice, albeit unknown to us at that point. She prepares us for the vignette-style in which she tells her story:

Looking back over the years, it seems that time stretches and contracts, depending on my experience of each moment. Some moments are etched in my memory, like the sunlight patterning the water in the river, ethereal moments captured only by my mind. Other longer stretches of time are a blur ….

This makes perfect sense to me in terms of how we remember our lives, and hence works for telling a story that covers a long life in a turbulent place. However, if you are someone who likes to get lost in a character and the ongoing drama of life, this book may not work for you.

So, Liên. She is introduced in 1962 as a young girl who has a prescient dream that the Viet Minh will come and destroy her fishing village. This marks her as the one to succeed her grandmother Bà as keeper of the shrine and mouthpiece for the Lady of the Realm (as she calls the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Quan Ám). Unfortunately, the village head ignores the warning, and the village is attacked with most in the village killed. Liên, however, escapes, and lives to chronicle the aftermath.

The book then takes us through moments in Liên’s, and therefore Vietnam’s, life in 1968, 1980, 1991 and 2007, before finishing in 2009 when Liên is now an old woman living in a Buddhist monastery. She has experienced much violence and oppression – through the war and the “fall of Saigon”, through the Communist regime which she “naively believed” would bring peace but which brought “re-education” and more death, and through later “reforms” which were supposed to open up Vietnam but saw her beloved Prajna Monastery destroyed. Liên survives it all, sustained by hope:

Ever hidden away the Lady could still bring hope, I thought. I had found the Lady in many guises, but the strongest seemed to be the Lady I had inside. (1980)

This hope is sorely tested, however, and in the last section she says:

Sanctuaries are an illusion, only suffering is real. I know that this is not what Buddha taught, and my experience has made my own sayings out of his teachings. I believe that any safety I find is temporary, any refuge is not permanent. But my teacher would say, all things are impermanent and change. I hope that our situation will change. Some days I cannot bear another moment of being under siege. (2009)

The tone, here, is typical of the book as a whole – calm, somewhat resigned, and sometimes hopeful.

Now, how to describe the writing? There’s the tone, and there’s Pham’s simple, direct language (which is also evidenced in the above excerpt). There’s also her preponderant use of short paragraphs. And there’s the episodic form, with each episode/year heralded by an epigram, the last four by Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Together, these create a sort of prose-poem, and with that, dare I venture, a higher (or perhaps just universal) plane of truth!

In other words, Pham has contrived to tell a personal, human story through her character Liên, while also conveying a philosophical attitude to life based on endurance, compassion and most of all hope. A moving, inspiring read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) captures the book beautifully in her review.

aww2017 badgeHoa Pham
Lady of the realm
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 1977
87pp.
ISBN: 9781925581133

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2017 11:52 pm

    I think the Vietnamese community in Australia is largely South Vietnamese and anti communist. My political sympathies in any country are generally with the independence movements, in the first instance anyway. So, on what I’ve read, I find it hard to sympathise with the author and her protagonist.

    • November 11, 2017 12:30 am

      Funny you should say that Bill, because the book I’m currently reading is the Pulitzer prize-winner The sympathizer … it’s quite coincidental that I’m reading these two one after the other.

      As for this book, although you’re probably right about the author’s origins, I think the focus is less on the politics, than on how individuals are buffeted around by the events around them and how they may or may not survive them.

  2. November 11, 2017 12:08 pm

    Yes, I think Sue is right. This book could just as easily have been written ‘from the other side’ because it’s about the day-to-day effects of war on ordinary people.
    PS Thanks for the generous mention, Sue:)

    • November 11, 2017 1:47 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Glad you agreed. BTW, just after reading Bill’s comment I got to the point in The sympathizer where he talks about the freedom fighters from the south fighting the freedom fighters from the north! Made me laugh. (Our narrator “sympathises” with the north – so far at least.)

      I enjoyed your take. We were a bit similar in our approach, but you also offered different angles (or nooks!) that I found interesting.

  3. November 12, 2017 2:50 am

    I am certainly adding this to my TBR, Sue. I find many things enticing. I see that so many years are covered in a novella, Buddhist views are explored, and I see Thich Nhat Hanh too. He is one of my favourite Buddhist teachers. I wish I could grab this book soon. Thank you for this beautiful post, Sue. 🙂

    • November 12, 2017 9:47 am

      Lovely Deepika. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Thích Nhất Hạnh before. I think you’d like this book because it’s both strong and gentle.

      • November 12, 2017 1:01 pm

        Thank you, Sue. I have read books by two Buddhist teachers. Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. I find the latter more compassionate and his books, more simple. Maybe, it is just ne. I especially loved his book ‘Peace is Every Step’. I dip in and dip out when I need some reinforcement. As I write this, the great monk is in Vietnam after a long while.

        • November 12, 2017 8:57 pm

          Oh, Deepika, I love hearing about books that people love to dip in when they need reinforcement. I use Jane Austen, or poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even though I’m no longer a practising Christian, his poetry grabs me every time. I’m not very familiar though with Buddhist writings. I should probably rectify that.

        • November 12, 2017 11:54 pm

          I would utterly love to read your thoughts on Buddhist writings, Sue. 🙂

  4. buriedinprint permalink
    November 14, 2017 1:15 am

    What an interesting post. The language sounds like just what is required to tell a story like this. I still remember how shocked/surprised I was when someone pointed out to me that one could call the Vietnam War the American War; it wasn’t that I couldn’t see how it was possible and true, but that I could have gone for so many years without even considering it seemed appalling to me (but our history classes and social studies classes did have a heavy American slant).

    • November 14, 2017 8:15 am

      Same here Buried – re all that you’ve said. Once again it reminds us how history is about perspectives, and how the telling of it is so political. Didn’t really learn that at school, but touched a gig on it in my one little historiography course at uni. My only history course in fact and it was so worth doing.

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