The reader’s guide is Lê Giang: the story begins and ends with him, in 1987, when he is living in a coastal town in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. The same land on which he fought, with the IV Corps (the military force of the Republic of South Vietnam) during the American/Vietnam War.
Giang now works at a roadside inn, which is owned by a couple in their sixties. The wife cooks and runs the establishment and the husband exists in a state of grief: their son was killed in the conflict and his body has never been recovered.
This loss of a son is the first connection between Giang (via his employers) and the eponymous Mrs. Rossi. Her son, too, was killed in the war; his body was not recovered either. (Speaking of losses: there is also about a decade of Giang’s life missing as well, because he was imprisoned after the war.)
The overarching idea here is that the losses are overwhelming, in total and at the individual level. If one pulls a “skull marred with spiderweb cracks” from the river, it could be either American or Vietnamese.
Catherine Rossi has come to Vietnam with her adopted daughter, Chi Lan. Giang wonders at the woman’s decision to adopt a Vietnamese child in 1974, seven years after her son was killed and one year before the war’s end. Readers wonder about this too, but Mrs. Rossi not only creates a space for this young girl in her life, she also creates a space in the narrative for the North American reader who has never travelled to Vietnam.
An officer from Mrs. Rossi’s son’s platoon has drawn a map for her, suggesting a starting place for her search. Giang is, in so many ways, an ideal guide. Not only is he personally acquainted with the region, but he has an extensive network of people who are willing to assist in this woman’s search.
So for those who find it hard to imagine visiting the country, Mrs. Rossi embodies a questing – but slightly uneasy – traveller’s spirit. But Giang is all the guide any reader needs, given all the time he has spent in and through this country. (Giang came, originally, from the north, where he fought as an NVA soldier, until he defected to the south – which makes him a hoi cháng, as Mrs. Rossi’s daughter observes.)
Through his eyes, readers can inhabit scenes rich with sensory detail: star-fruit trees, hibiscus, bluebells, white cajeput flowers, water hyacinths, tangerines, plums, dates, tamarinds and persimmons.
“In fact, I bought the raincoats in this seaport town on one of the crowded backstreets where you have to duck your head going under suspended wickerwork and colorful apparel, where the broken pavement is ribbed with green moss in dark crevices, damp year-round in a sunless gloom.”
But, also, so much more. Mrs. Rossi’s Dream is filled with images of beauty and horror: pith helmets and pilots, bombings and banana flowers, centipedes and cigarettes, snakes and scars, sampans and sketches, riverbanks and water lilies, opium and scorpions, marketplaces and machetes, betel and bayonets, mosquitos and Zippos, razor wire and rubber trees, dumplings and ducklings.
And although the majority of the story unfolds in 1987, another voice contributes to the tale, this one rooted in 1968, when war was raging. (If you want to know more about this voice, other readers have discussed it in detail and it’s revealed on the book’s end flap too.) This story line unfolds in wartime. It does not get more grim than this: suicide and rape, decapitation and execution, murder and amputations, and the relentless sear of napalm.
The landscape and its inhabitants seem to inhabit a space beyond time, a space claimed by loss. The devastation wrecked on culture and individuals, rivers and sentient creatures of all kinds: it creates a density and tactility that connects present-day survivors with those lost in the past.
So questions like this – “Why do ghosts not grow older with time?” – not only make sense, but emerge organically from the intense emotions underscoring the landscape of narrative.
If pressed to suppose one motivation on the part of the author, in telling not only this story but those in his earlier novels, I would guess it is compassion which drives these words onto the page. In turn, these words on the page can incite compassion in attentive readers.
He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, twice a finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, and the recipient of Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, and Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Literary Prize in fiction.
The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book.
Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Publisher’s Page – Ordering details here
On the page with Teddy Rose’s interview with the author, there are links to other readers’ reviews and a giveaway of three copies.