Dust Child by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Thousands of Australians visit Vietnam each year, and many do so repeatedly. They are charmed by the beauty of the people and the landscape. Many would recall the horror of the Vietnam war, perhaps were demonstrating in the 70s to end the senseless carnage.

Few are aware of the enduring plight of the people deeply affected by this war.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s novel is a beautifully written account of its impact on her four characters.

Set in 1969, in the early war years, two sisters, Trang and Quynh, live with their struggling parents on a small rice farm, eking out a living amidst the constant threat of shells and shrapnel. To relieve their family’s desperate circumstances, they leave for Saigon where they believed they could solve their financial troubles.  They discover that working in a bar and ‘entertaining’ American servicemen is the most lucrative.

While in the city, Trang eventually meets and loves Dan, a quiet and gentle helicopter pilot, and they grasp the chance for some happiness while war rages around them.

Quynh, on the other hand, embraces the situation and, although working as a prostitute too, remains detached and unwilling to become involved with anyone. She is the least vulnerable, emotionally.

Decades pass and the focus is on Phong, an Amerasian – a child of Vietnamese and American parents destined to grow up in an orphanage. His life is an endless battle, but he courageously faces each challenge. Phong is the ‘child of dust’ of the title….of dust AND love.

The fourth key character is Dan, who becomes Trang’s lover. The war has a devastating effect on him, and he suffers severe episodes of psychosis.  Dust Child follows his search to find his child, which he knows was born more than forty years ago.

In her powerful yet sensitive style, Phan Que Mai brings stories that show war means not only the terrible death toll but it touches countless numbers of people in various ways. Innocent children, born of mixed race, suffer cruelty, loneliness and a sense of worthlessness. Their desire for connection to parents is almost overwhelming.

She emphasises the suffering soldiers may experience. They transform from being strong, balanced, and mostly happy into violent,  unpredictable and frightening men. PTSD has just recently been recognised and attempts made to support people who are in its grip.

A search for an abandoned baby, now a mature adult, is fraught with problems and marriages and relationships are strained and threatened. This lends suspense to the plot as bonds are exposed or unravelled.

The influence of Buddhism lightens these confronting issues. The Vietnamese are able to face adversity with their religious philosophy, and are remarkable in their gentle acceptance. They believe for instance, ‘life is riding high on an elephant then low on a dog.’

Throughout her book, Nguyen employs some simple but striking imagery. She writes, ‘Young women are nothing but firewood in the furnace of war’. It is unforgettable.

How vivid is ‘ pain is like the claws of a mud crab’?

Nguyen Phan Que  Mai is much admired in her own country and internationally. She has won several awards. Her previous book, The Mountains Sing, has been highly praised.

Having been enormously impressed by Dust Child, I intend to seek it out.

Dust Child


by Nguyen Phan Que Mai


ISBN 978 086154 612 1

$32.99; 322pp



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