I gobbled up this novel, which I found via my usual method of discovering books, an interview on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). I figure anything Scott Simon likes, I’ll like. I encourage you to read or listen to the interview about A Hundred Suns, with the author, Karin Tanabe.
Tanabe is known for writing historical novels, and this one’s about Vietnam before it was Vietnam, in the 1930s when it was still French Indochina. It’s a period and place I’m interested in and wanted to learn more about, so why not learn history through a novel (it’s how I learned when I was young; those novels about Queen Elizabeth I sure were more interesting than history books, even if they weren’t 100% accurate; after all, neither are history books).
There is so much to like about the book, and I especially liked how each and every character in the book (French people, Americans, and Annamites (what Vietnamese people were called then)) had a fully developed personality. Like real people, each of them had admirable aspects and made plenty of mistakes. Each had prejudices but learned not to be so confident. You end up empathizing with each major character, even though they do some pretty icky things.
Tanabe, of course, weaves a lot of history into the narrative. You get to see the country from the eyes of the French colonists (ooh, la la, they were fancy), local people who tried to assimilate into French society, wealthy communist sympathizers, grass-roots communists, and of course, random mercenaries. I found it easier to understand the Vietnamese point of view on communism from this book than I did in books I read when I was younger, which all took the capitalist viewpoint exclusively (one character in the book was like me, neither colonial nor communist nor really capitalist…just wanting the best for everyone).
One thing I really liked about the book is how Tanabe portrays relationships between people of different cultures and races. As someone who’s enjoyed being close to Asians in the past and remembers how people STILL looked askance at it in the 1980s, I appreciated how the relationship between the characters Marcelle and Khoi in the 1930s was depicted. I’m so glad that people are much freer to love whoever they want to now.
I actually liked how she portrayed all relationships. She made arranged marriages make more sense, yet showed that both friendship and true love that can grow and change as people mature, as well. Here’s my favorite quote, from Khoi, the rich and handsome silk merchant, talking about two friends:
“We are not perfect people, you and I,” he said, “No one is. Even Anne-Marie and Sinh. I know we hold him up on a pedestal now, but he wasn’t perfect. We all have moments of weakness, of strength, of stupidity. But if we’re lucky, we’ll have even more moments of love.”A Hundred Suns, page 340.
There were a couple of things that bugged me about the writing style of Tanabe. Sometimes she gets a little didactic and seems to be giving a history lesson rather than letting it come out through the characters. But, there IS a lot of historical context about rubber plantations and such to get through.
And she has a writing style that sometimes bothers me, where at the end of any utterance she inserts some bit of physical description of the character’s eyes, or skin, or something. I have no idea why that style annoys me, but it always seems like the author couldn’t find any other way to add these details, so they get stuck into the dialogue. And I always wonder if whether someone’s skin is tanned or not matters to the story (in this case, I’ll assume the main character’s deepening tan symbolizes her growing understanding of the Asian culture she finds herself immersed in).
Shoot, I’ve totally forgotten to say what the book’s plot has to do with. You see, there’s a nice social-climbing American woman named Jessie who gets her wealthy family sent to Indochine to escape her past. They are a part of the Michelin family, and the husband wanted to do more with tires and rubber and less with writing tour guides. Jessie meets up with locals, both French and Annamite, deals with her servants (fascinating in their own right), travels through the country, and gets drawn into intrigue as she begins to doubt her sanity. Mayhem ensues.
Wow, can I summarize a book, or what? Anyway, I’d say A Hundred Suns is worth getting a hold of. It will take your mind off the present, and you’ll get to meet a lot of fascinating people in an interesting historical context. You might as well learn something!