A Book Review by Stefanie Field
No Man’s Land by Duong Thu Huong
Duong Thu Huong is a vocal advocate of human rights and democratic reform. Her novels are banned in Vietnam, where she continues to live in internal exile, but she remains one of Vietnam’s most popular and controversial writers. Her novel, No Man’s Land, begins with a storm. It is a storm that foreshadows the devastating story of a love triangle that will change everyone, for better or worse. In a village, where a boy’s biggest dream is to have a decent-sized farm or move to the city, a community is struck by a fiasco in the shape of a skinny, starving, poor man who has been revived from the dead. Years after his death certificate has been sent to the village, declaring him as a casualty of war, he comes back home to reclaim his wife. However, it is 14 years after this man has left her for the war, and she is already remarried, in love with her new husband, and raising a son. Unfortunately, the decision of her actions is more of her village’s will than her own.
While I found there were some parts in the book that seemed to drag on or be over-descriptive, I loved the cast. You have a man born into business, a village woman who worked on farms, and a war veteran. The great part of this book is that the characters are each given their own story and written so thoroughly from their individual perspective, that you can’t take anybody’s side. There’s no person who has better “morals” than the other, and given their separate environments, it’s unreasonable to say “this person made better use of what they had” or “this person’s outcome is his own fault.” It’s difficult to dislike any of the minor characters as well. Even the prostitute that robbed her clients. You simply understand where they all come from and why they behave the way they do, and while the war may have been a big factor, it’s also the question of community expectations and the role society imposes on a person.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, this novel addressed a lot of important themes. Women’s rights is probably the biggest issue in the novel. There is a large question about the expectations of a woman’s role in society, and who place her in that role as housewife or mother, or even as the host of a visiting guest. When Mien is confronted by her ex-husband, who the entire village has already presumed to be dead for over a decade, she has to ask herself if going back to her first husband is the right thing to do. She obviously would rather not leave her comfortable life and child, but because the community is already gossiping about her hesitancy to do her duty as a wife, she is inclined to follow society’s expectations. This doesn’t stem from peer pressure alone, however. The general theme is about a community or society which views women with specific roles, and these roles are completely taken for granted by the men of the village. In fact, the men will talk of women as an extension of property, or compare them to fish.Other issues that the book talks about are prostitution, mental shock from postwar conditions and adjusting back to normal society, communism and what emerges beneath its very nose, and the very things that make a community accuse their own people of wrong-doings. Envy. Jealousy.
My favorite moment in the novel is when a group of men are gathered together to eat and have a “meeting” which is really just an excuse for them to have their wives play as hosts for a dinner party. The village men are talking gossip about the love triangle that has twisted and tormented the three main characters, speaking of women like food. Then one of the wives stand up and lectures the men with a speech of her own. She condemns them for being ungrateful and bragging like this when it is the women who earn the money for their tobacco. She accuses them for insulting Hoan who has offered to built their children a school, but they are too embarrassed to say thanks or praise him, that they spit out their jealousy in words. It is at this very point in the novel that the women in the village are not only standing up for themselves, but they also call out the men for being too weak to do the same. Instead, they are too embarrassed by their own failure to be the man they dreamed to be, with the big farm and a city education.
However, the biggest message in the book is when an old man tells Hoan,
“People’s curiosity is not as innocent as you think. It always comes with prejudice and cruelty. Sometimes it can even kill a man, or a love story or even a family without even paying the price of going to court or to prison. Curiosity doesn’t even have a face you can spit on… What we call curiosity, opinion, the rumor of the crowd, is something invisible and yet terrifying. I’ve been its victim. I was the main character in a story just as extraordinary as yours… that’s why I’d like to offer you my sincere apology.”
I rated this book five out of five stars.
It’s a book of truly heavy context. You certainly won’t feel light-hearted by the end of it, but it’ll change you, even just a slightest bit.