Book Review: Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran

Diasporic movements can distort narratives to unrecognizable lengths. Memories are buried with trauma, and the interconnectedness of generations can be lost. Such ideas are pondered in E.M. Tran’s Daughters of the New Year. The novel refuses a linear plot; the lack of a traditional form is perfect for a story that toys with repeated parallels to reveal natural inheritance and the circularity of time. 

The novel is divided into two parts: “2016-1975” and “1975-”. Following history backwards from the present, each chapter details vignettes in the lives of the female members of the Trung family. Part 1 focuses on three Trung sisters—Trac, Nhi and Trieu—and their mother Xuan. Part 2 follows Xuan’s maternal line, taking readers from her escape from Saigon to her great-grandmother’s experiences in French Indochina.

Without a strict plot, Tran takes readers through personal vignettes and anecdotes to paint a larger picture of the Vietnamese experience. The family’s personal ordeals illustrate specific moments in Vietnamese history; from the shame that Thao, Xuan’s great-grandmother, must face in hiding her daughter’s half-French heritage to the fleeing Saigon on a boat in 1975 narrative that is retold time and time again. The post-1975 vignettes focus more on the process of assimilation and adaptation within America, with a heightened emphasis on the loss of Vietnamese culture. 

By not locking herself into a linear timeline, Tran is able to draw parallels between the various generations in intriguing ways. On the last page of the novel, the reader is asked: “Who says time must move forward?” Drawing attention to its own structure, the plot challenges traditional fiction to weave a story less about individual characters and more about their relations to one another, what events shape their futures and pasts. 

A large portion of the post-1975 vignettes focus on Xuan’s staunch following of the Chinese zodiac as a prediction device. Each daughter hears their mother warn them of ills to come but brushes her off as a nonsensical older woman. As more is revealed, Xuan turns out to have been correct. The family ended up in Louisiana after escaping Vietnam, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina is revealed to be the source of Xuan’s fears. Tran’s characters make many comparisons between the cyclical nature of the Vietnamese monsoon season and American hurricanes. Coming from a war-torn country, Xuan is often overly-prepared for disaster, which only creates more rifts between her and her very Americanized daughters; they refuse her foretelling and caution as overbearing and unnecessary. By slowly infusing vignettes that center on specific moments between the women and their mother with these larger and lasting notions, Tran is able to subtly and effectively explore the difficulties of immigration and the inevitable loss of culture that comes with it. From three daughters that barely speak Vietnamese to the declining tradition of horoscopes, the sacrifice of assimilation is the Americanization that comes along with it.

E.M. Tran (photo by Melissa Tran)

Yet, in the use of non-linear plot and telling history backwards, it is not until we see a chapter from Xuan’s perspective much later into the novel that we understand why she is so adamant about the zodiac. Tran writes that “She was the only person, now, to carry the memory of it [the zodiac], and once she was gone, that memory, too, would be gone with her.” The rest of the chapters that follow feature much reliance on the zodiac by Xuan’s matriarchal line in Vietnam.

This play with time manifests most effectively in the notion of motherhood and womanhood that is a great theme of the novel. All the characters are afforded narrative vignettes that center their youth, in a way reminding readers that mothers have had lives before their children, before becoming “mother.” As if drawing attention to Tran’s own role, in a chapter that follows Nhi’s great grandmother, the narrator asks “Who would remember for them, what it felt like to be young?” The presence of a beauty pageant motif helps to elaborate on this point, and relate themes of femininity and time. Xuan’s middle daughter, Nhi, is in Saigon for an American dating show, all the way in 2016. About 100 pages later, Xuan is almost her exact same age, participating in her own beauty pageant in Saigon, one thrown by the American soldiers that have just arrived. This experience is described in parallels, with both women viewing the practice similarly, facing the same worries and excitements. Through this strong motif, Tran is able to subtly prod reader’s minds into understanding the fleeting nature of youth.

E.M. Tran’s Daughters of the New Year is a feat of a novel. It is a stunning re-imagination of the past, playing with parallels across space and time to reveal truths about the female experience of the Vietnamese diaspora. Tran manages to weave together strong themes and cyclical narratives in a way that reveals omnipresent topics with careful subtlety. There is a real grace towards humanity and the complicated nature of change that leaves the reader equally appreciative of both history and the future.

Daughters of the New Year
by E.M. Tran
Hanover Square Press (Harper Collins), $27.99

Melina Kritikopoulos is a mixed-race writer and journalist of Greek and Vietnamese descent. She is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley where she works for The Daily Californian. She produces and hosts the podcast Poetic Pontification, highlighting poets of the East Bay Area. 


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