Vu Tran’s debut novel, Dragonfish, opens with a letter from a mother to her daughter, with whom she has lost contact. She recounts the first night of their escape from communist Vietnam, in a small, overcrowded boat, soon to be wracked by ‘thirst and hunger, sickness [and] death’. The mother confesses she had not wanted to leave behind her homeland and husband, and that she blamed her daughter for having done so.
The story travels in time and place to Oakland, California. A divorced American cop, Robert Ruen, learns his Vietnamese-born ex-wife, Suzy, who has remarried a violent Vietnamese restaurant owner, gambler and gangster, is missing in Las Vegas. At gunpoint, and because of his forlorn love for her, Ruen accepts the task of finding his ex-wife.
In the search for Suzy, Dragonfish shifts back and forth in perspective from Ruen’s reflections on his failed marriage, to the mother’s letters. We learn how Ruen and Suzy met; how he urged her to Americanise her name from ‘Hong’; how she hadn’t wanted children; how little they shared in common; how they fought, verbally and physically; and how she left him. The reflections tell us how things happened, but not why, underscoring how little Ruen knew about his ex-wife, even after eight years of marriage.
From the letters we learn of the mother’s life in Vietnam; her love for her husband, a soldier in the Vietnam War, who was sent to a re-education camp by the communists; her heartache at leaving him to flee the country; the perilous journey on the boat; and the long wait in a Malaysian refugee camp for offers of resettlement and a new life. The letters are the mother’s attempt to explain to her daughter why things happened and, most importantly, why she deserted her as a young child in America.
The reflections and the letters intersect in Las Vegas and we realise they are written by Ruen’s ex-wife, Suzy (or Hong). The significance of the title, Dragonfish, is alluded to by the son of the new husband, who tells Ruen the fish, which are endangered in the wild and sold illegally by the father and son, are ‘supposed to bring good luck, keep evil away, bring the family together. Asians always love believing in that’.
Dragonfish is a story of family and searches. The search for freedom of the Vietnamese boatpeople. The search for a new life in a new country. The search for identity. The search for love. And the search for an understanding of why relationships fail and families are torn apart.
Dragonfish is an authentic and enjoyable read. Vu Tran offers insight into the Vietnamese migrant experience in America, but also into the wider human condition. This reviewer looks forward to his next novel.
Robert Fairhead is a mid-life dad and dog owner. He is currently working on a blog and writer’s website. You can follow him on Twitter at @tallandtrue.