Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls by Con Cú

 Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls

   by Con Cú

  Deux Voiliers Publishing

  Third Edition 2012

  ISBN 978-0987964-182

 

Reviewed by Estelle Lucille

Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is a passionate story, which chronicles thirty years of tragedies, joys and heartaches in the lives of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, and the equal joy and pain of their closest Canadian friend.

All of us occasionally despair of the stresses and troubles and often mundane affairs of our own lives, but a novel like this reminds us that there are others in the world who have experienced much greater challenges, which the rest of us can only dream of, and then perhaps only in the darkest of nightmares. The resilience of the Thieu family in overcoming the many obstacles they encounter show us that whatever we think we can't handle in life is only a pale comparison to the hardships of the “boat people.” Con Cú’s novel brilliantly gives a human and very noble face to the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s.

The story begins with the heroic gesture of the mother, Han Thieu, to spare her family the pain of her impending death. Han’s last day is filled with memories of those closest to her and sets the stage for the subsequent chapters, flashing back to the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam to the Communists in 1975. In Saigon, the Thieus suffer imprisonment and persecution at the hands of the Communist victors while in Cambodia, the family of Quan Phoc and his sister Hue is sent to a Khmer Rouge collective farm. Quan and Hue survive the ordeal, but not their parents. Later in the teeming refugee camp of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, Quan and Hue are adopted by the Thieu family, and Quan is entrusted with protecting his sister and his two new adopted sisters, An and Minh Chau. When Quan is forced to kill a camp guard to protect the girls, the new family is separated.

The Thieus are resettled in Canada, from where they try in vain to arrange the immigration of Quan and Hue. The children end up instead in Bangkok where Quan joins a band of local gangsters to survive and protect Hue from further danger. In Canada, the Thieus meet Mathieu Hibou, a kind student who becomes their closest friend before heading off to Rwanda to work as a development worker. The friendship between the Thieus and Mathieu is a tribute to the beautiful acceptance in Canadian society. Quan finally makes it to Canada, but as a drug smuggler. When he meets the Thieus, they save him from his criminal existence, but his past catches up with him.

The story offers an intricate, but highly readable and fast-paced plot. As the main characters travel the world, they educate the reader about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, the cruelty of Asian drug traffickers, and even the human tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an emotionally charged chapter early in the book, it challenges the reader with the moral dilemma of six-year-old Minh Chau when she must choose in a split second between the life of a good friend and her family’s safety.

Yet the book also describes many acts of kindness. It is a reminder how much we actually rely on each other to survive, and of course, as always, the importance of family, whether together or split apart by circumstance and acts of war.

The title comes from the English translations of the names of four of the main characters: Quan, (Soldier), Hue (Lily), An (Peace), and Minh Chau (Precious Pearls). It's the last who is the most memorable character, the sweet little child who shadows the older Quan, trying to steal sweets from his pocket, and who grows into a strikingly beautiful young woman who suffers from her childhood trauma and the vagaries of the heart before finally finding enduring love in some fairly surprising arms.

Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is highly recommended for those who love stories about the strength of the human spirit in overcoming incredible odds and in refusing to allow the violent injustices of the world turn one into an oppressor. For armchair world travelers and aficionados of Asian society and history, the novel is a special treat as it tantalizes with fascinating descriptions of exotic places, practices, religious beliefs and traditional medicines.

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