Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2017

The Lady of the Realm (2017), by Hoa Pham

This new title from Hoa Pham would make a great choice for Novellas in November*.  Although it’s set in Vietnam, tracing many decades of that country’s tragic history, it’s a calm, meditative book which asserts that peace is possible. I liked it very much.

The Lady of the Realm features a young girl who grows to womanhood during the years of the American War, which we in the West know as the Vietnam War.  Liên wakes one day after an horrific dream in which she sees the massacre of peaceful people in her village and she seeks reassurance from her grandmother Bà, who tends the shrine of the Lady of the Realm.

In the morning I went to the dinh, the village square, where a wooden effigy of the Lady of the Realm was kept in the centre hall. Bowing to Bà, my grandmother who tended the shrine, I clutched a bunch of purple wildflowers for the Lady, and a rice cake from my breakfast.  Bà opened up the hall for me and bade me enter.

I bowed to the wooden figurine shrouded in the shade of the morning sun. She wore a bright pink cloth veil made by my grandmother, and her serene face bore a half-smile.  The hall always had a hush about it due to the meditating and worship for the Lady and I walked slowly on the hallowed ground. (p.7)

Her grandmother counsels her to have faith in the Lady’s power to protect them and to hope and pray for peace, but this faith is sorely tested.

Over five decades we see the impact on Liên as first, the Viet Minh arrive, and then the war escalates.  But peace does not come when war ends because of Communist reprisals and their repression of religion, which culminates in the novel with the martyrdom of Liên’s only friend, also a Buddhist nun.

All alone in the world, Liên is then befriended by a strong, purposeful woman called Binh not averse to paying bribes when it’s needed to protect her activities from the communist cadres:

They had forced our worship behind closed doors, with family altars hiding inside.  When I do mindful breathing, walking and exercises from the monastery, I do it away from prying eyes.  I valued Binh all the more because I could trust her – a rare privilege in those days.

Every day I sat beside Binh in the marketplace and watched people come and go.  They grew familiar but not close to me. Most were displaced fisher people from further down south.  The communists cadres, a pair of them, both men, walked among us briefly for an hour each morning then retreated to their office to drink beer and watch women.

I missed the people of my village, and every day I offered a prayer inside the house: may they be well wherever they may be. (p.53)

Hope surfaces when Vietnam adopts economic openness in the 1990s  (đổi mới) but other freedoms are denied.  In 2009 there was a clampdown on religion again with the destruction of the cherished Prajna Monastery which followed the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Zen Master based in Plum Village in France.  (Hoa Pham wrote a piece for Crikey about the incongruity of this destruction occurring in the same year that Vietnam took its place on the UN Security Council, but you may find the article paywalled).

Each chapter is prefaced by quotations from Thich Nhat Hanh, and the text is punctuated by Liên’s determined struggle to find consolation in her faith. Although I am not a believer, I found it inspirational that this character representing the ordinary people of Vietnam, could find ways to refuse anger and hatred.  It’s consistent with what I saw in Vietnam as a tourist in 2007, where American veterans seemed to be treated with courtesy and respect, even though their presence must have been painful for many people.

Highly recommended.

*I can’t remember who hosts Novellas in November.  Does anyone know?

Author: Hoa Pham
Title: The Lady of the Realm
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2017, 98 pp
ISBN: 9781925581133
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Available from Fishpond: Lady of the Realm and direct from Spinifex Press where it is also available as an eBook.


  1. I’ve been chasing this around my phone. I read the Crikey piece though it did not say much more (I’m not sure how big Vietnam is, though “6 hours drive”, say 500 km must be a fair way south.) Was chasing up the Prajna stream of Buddhism and ran into a poem by Hao Pham, who I hadn’t realised was a Melburnian.


    • It’s hard to say about the distance. I went to Vietnam in 2007 and the roads are pretty much what you’d expect, terrible, narrow, and very crowded, so you can’t barrel along between cities like you can in Australia. You can travel a very long way behind some old fellow on a bicycle loaded up to the width of a car with bananas because there’s nowhere to pass. You’d be very lucky to do 60kmh on the open road, and then there are lots of villages where you have to slow down to a crawl. And even now very few people have cars. It’s all bicycles and motorbikes, with people dinking or maybe getting a ride on a horse and cart, and very overcrowded minibuses. (Vietnam is not much more than 1000km from north (Hanoi) to south (Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh city) but very narrow, and with mountains in the middle).


  2. […] Seizure Prize winners.  I have just read Hoa Pham’s latest book The Lady of the Realm (see my review) and I also have her prize-winning The Other Shore which won in […]


  3. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) captures the book beautifully in her review. […]


  4. […] The Lady of the Realm, by Hoa Pham […]


  5. […] Lady of the Realm (2017) by Hoa Pham […]


  6. […] PS As in her later novel The Lady of the Realm Pham includes reference to the destruction of the Prajna Monastery, and [by contrast with Western outrage over Islamic destruction of ancient sites in Afghanistan and Syria], her characters deplore the way the West has ignored the loss of this significant Buddhist site.  (There is a brief explanation about that in my review). […]


  7. Though clearly different subject matter, some of the ways that you describe feeling about this story remind me of a book we’ve both recently read, Veronica Tadjo’s In the Company of Men. It’s so helpful to read stories that help us confront and manage painful experiences like this. Not in a how-to kind of way, but in a way hard-to-be-human kind of way.


    • Yes, I hear you. Does reading make people more empathetic? It’s certainly given me a sense of perspective about what hardship is.


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