“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.” So says war correspondent Michael Herr on the persistent reality of a war curiously prone to re-examination. In The Lotus and the Storm, by Vietnamese-American author Lan Cao, this revisiting takes the form of a dialogue of sorts between a daughter and a father, lotuses swept to America’s shores by the storm of the American intervention.
The father, Mr. Minh, is a soldier in the South Vietnamese army. At first appreciative of the assistance the Americans provide, he is disillusioned by the U.S.-backed assassination of the republic’s leader Diem. Minh doesn’t switch sides, but when the Americans retreat in ignominy, his sense of betrayal becomes complete.
Mai, the daughter, becomes enamored at a young age with a typically green and generous American, who appears to be killed in an attack that also slays her sister. Much like the author, Mai nevertheless attains with great ambivalence a portion of the American Dream.
Now that most Americans view the war as a mistake if not an atrocity, the author is keen to remind us that, whatever the Americans’ broader strategic goals, saving South Vietnam was to its loyal citizens a dire matter indeed. Moreover, the civil strife didn’t end when the war did, with Vietnamese-Americans on both sides still holding grudges and nursing resentments. But this is also a novel about reconciliation, and about that generation of Vietnamese for whom the future supersedes the past.
This isn’t the best novel about the conflict—that honor goes to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. Cao’s dense language and her seeming indecision between embittered history and sentimentality belie the novel’s therapeutic character. But, like Cao’s acclaimed debut, Monkey Bridge, it is an impassioned and powerful attempt to understand a chapter of history that, as Herr says, we’ve all in a sense inhabited.