I am a sucker for a slow, immersive, multi-generational historical fiction. I love the unwinding of family secrets and histories. Families are spaces of ordinary and extraordinary trauma; intense love also breeds intense regret, jealousies, animosities. Tragedy binds and creates familial bonds stronger than blood. And, of course, as a historian I love getting a glimpse into a past where the reasons and logics behind piety, duty, and love are complex, sometimes contradictory, colored with personal suffering, traditions, and the institutions of humanity-at-large — as in this case, French colonialism and Confucian patriarchy.
That is the hinge around which Daughters of the New Year swivels. This novel is an honest portrait of the brutal historical and cultural complexities that shape familial love.
The reader is given a privileged view into the minds, hearts, and philosophies of several generations of Vietnamese women. It is a novel about why and how mothering, motherhood, and filial duty are never straightforward, why these acts of love are volatile constructions of history and culture. Time and place alter the modes by which we care for one another, show each other love. What is an expression of affection for one generation is manipulation to the next. What is piety to one generation is an empty gesture for another. The reasons why mothers do what they do, why sometimes their love crushes their daughters, are molded by forces beyond their control: war, racism, patriarchy. Yet, for all those differences, there is one motivation behind these acts: the desire to provide the next generation with more than what the previous had. This is the love embedded in families.
The reader is given a privileged view of an excavation of familial love through Vietnamese and American history. Through chapters narrated by a daughter of this family, daughters descended through a matriarchal bloodline, the reader gets an interior view of the characters’ minds. Each of them has a different voice in this novel. EM. Tran’s prose is a beautiful thread throughout, binding their stories together, but each of the characters speak with their own, unique voice. Each chapter reveals its narrator’s logic, their historical context; explains why they did the things they did — even perhaps knowing that those acts would somehow traumatize the next generation.
There is Nhi and her sisters, the American generation. There is their mother, Xuan; their aunt, Xuan’s sister; there is their grandmother; a line of women, as if holding hands, unbroken, their spirits resiliently swaying in the winds of change and time going all the way back to the epic and legendary Trung sisters. Daughters of the New Year is about these women.
Fans of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, or Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko will enjoy Tran’s Daughters of the New Year.