Palawan Story by Caroline Vu

 Palwan Story

  by Caroline Vu

  Deux Voiliers Publishing
  Published 2014
  ISBN 978-1928049012


Reviewed by Kate Elliott

The first thing that may strike you about Palawan Story is the title of the novel. So exotic-sounding and intriguing, especially for those that have never actually been to Palawan. The book delivers on that promise, taking the reader from Vietnam to Palawan, then Connecticut to Montreal, and then back to Palawan; and all along we get to experience different travels and different cultures. But a travel book this most certainly is not. In fact, it’s a book about family, and about Kim, a young Vietnamese girl, who struggles to find her true identity, and to find the truth of her personal story. The first thing we learn about Kim is about her family. She has two younger sisters, Mai and Thu, and a mother who is an overbearing and stern woman that runs a restaurant in Vietnam. We also learn of Kim’s father, who left them when Kim was still very young, on a helicopter headed for America on the last day of the Vietnam War. From there we meet characters who, while not in the bloodline, are just as close as family as anyone could be, including Aunty Hung who lives on their street and helps fill their days by telling long-winded and outrageous stories about the Communists, the Americans, and her own superstitions.

Kim is soon forced to leave all of these family members behind, as her mother wants her to have a better life in America. First she’s sent to Palawan in the Philippines, where she has her first encounter with medicine – something that will play a much larger part of her life later on. It’s also in Palawan that she begins to open up about her life back home, or what she can remember of it, to the doctors and nurses, as well as to Minh, the boy whom she meets there and becomes her first real friend away from home. The audience gets a glimpse of how Kim misses her home and family while she’s in Palawan, but it’s not until she arrives in the United States that we see how deeply she yearns for them.

There, Kim is sponsored by a family in Connecticut, and while she’s amazed at how different, and how much better, things are on that side of the world, she can’t help thinking of her mother and father, and her two younger sisters that she left back in Vietnam. It’s only here that the reader gets to see just how deep an impact leaving them has made on Kim, and how she not only misses them, but how now she’s also trying to cope with a sense of loss identity. It’s not until later that we learn that this loss of memory comes not just from trauma Kim has been through, but also through the various recollections she has heard – from both those she knows, such as Aunty Hung, and from the mass media. It’s not until towards the end of the novel that we learn that not all of these recollections are true.

After spending several teenage years in Connecticut, Kim heads to Montreal to study to become a doctor. Here she has many typical college experiences but all the while, she is still trying to piece together what happened to her early in life, what happened to her family, and who in fact, she really is. It’s this search for identity that leads her not only to California where she meets up with someone from her past, but also back to Palawan and Vietnam – the only two places where she feels she can find who she truly is.

While Kim’s struggle to find her identity is the central theme of Palawan Story, the novel is also enriched by the colourful stories of the cast of endearing characters Kim meets along the way. As Caroline Vu says at the very beginning of the book, this is the story of anyone who’s ever stepped foot in Palawan.