Hoa 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 epigraph, 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.
(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)