Quan Barry was born in Saigon and raised on Boston’s North Shore. She’s an English professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Rabbit, the main character of her first novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (Pantheon, 288 pp., $24.95), we are told, is “gifted with the otherworldly ability to hear the voices of the dead.”
I’d just finished rereading Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War novel, with its magical realism aspects. So I was eager to find out what miracles Barry had worked in this novel.
I was not disappointed. Rabbit’s special skills allow the reader entrance to the world of the great sweep of the history of Vietnam. Striking language (“Tu had pulled her up out of the earth like a carrot”) is found on just about every page of this fine novel; that sentence is my favorite. Maybe some of Rabbit’s special skills came from being born like a carrot.
Rabbit possesses a freckled face that causes people to stare, but she also possesses other aspects that cause people to do more than stare. She is highly sought out for her talent of spotting where bodies are buried; she can hear their voices speaking to her. Rabbit becomes the official hearer of the dead.
In the course of this complex novel, the reader witnesses the horrors of the near slavery of the French rubber plantations, free fire zones during the American war, traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, widespread suffering in reeducation camps after the Americans left Vietnam, and Rabbit’s escape aboard a leaking boat attacked by pirates.
The question is posed: “It is a mystery no one could explain. Why a foreign power came all this way and then just disappeared.” Yes, that is something to ponder.
Late in the novel we are told that there are two kinds of stories: “stories the world is eager to bring into the light and stories it doesn’t want told.” This book has plenty of both.
The novel is not for the squeamish. I can think of no atrocities that were perpetrated in the Vietnam War that go unmentioned or described in this book, including the horrible aftermath of a populace being exposed to defoliants.
I can endure the details of human suffering, but when the author describes a dog being beaten to death so his flesh would be especially tender for eating, I reached my limit.
I recommend She Weeps Each Time You’re Born for those who believe that the war in Vietnam was a grand idea.