Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 314 pp. $27.99) is a beautifully written work of literary fiction by E.M. Tran. A Vietnamese American writer from New Orleans, Tran holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. This novel, her first, centers on five generations of Vietnamese mothers and daughters and how their readings of the zodiac guide their lives.
It’s 2016 in New Orleans. Xuan Trung is obsessed with divining her daughters’ fates through their Vietnamese zodiac signs. Every Lunar New Year she gives her daughters horoscopes she has prepared from a book. She draws charts on old paper, writing them in an almost secret language. She wears multiple “jangling jade bangles” on her wrists to ward off evil. “Twice she abstained from wearing white for the entire year because it was unlucky for her sign.”
Xuan has been in the United States since 1975, yet she wears her American citizenship “with discomfort, like a pair of shoes half a size too small.” She sometimes wonders what happened to old friends in the former South Vietnam, but doesn’t really want to know. She is divorced from her husband, but still helps him run a local Vietnamese newspaper.
She recalls how happy she was when they had bought a new house in New Orleans. “In Vietnam, if you had something new, it meant you were rich. If you had something old, it meant you were poor. If you had nothing at all, it meant you were nothing. Simple as that.”
We read about the dragon dance and Vietnamese American funerals. We read about how the houses in South Vietnam had seemed to mourn the losses of their families who fled during the tumultuous events of 1975. We learn of someone claiming to be the last man to leave Vietnam, only to discover, according to Xuan, that “every man had been the last man to leave Vietnam – God forbid a man just admit he had been one of many to leave, driven out like common cattle.”
This story moves backward in time, all the way to ancient Vietnamese legends. At that point, we realize that time might not be moving at all, but is standing still.
When you finish this book, you may discover you’re reading a more serious story than you expected. Then again, maybe this is a book you were destined to read—as written in the stars.