Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2018

The Other Shore, by Hoa Pham

One of the signs of a loss of innocence in children is the emergence of superpower fantasies: having great strength to overcome ‘the bad guys’; being invisible so that one can get into mischief undetected; and being able to read the minds of others so that their secrets can be discovered.  I was about eleven when I read H G Wells’ The Invisible Man and discovered the tragic loneliness of its protagonist, but— except for dystopias with a political agenda like 1984— until now I’ve never encountered a book exploring the consequences of mind-reading.  Melbourne author Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore was the winner of the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize and it’s an intriguing book.

This is the blurb:

 ‘My grandmother had been right to hide her Buddhist rituals for so many years during doi moi, when ancestor worship was forbidden. The spirits were more important than the rules of men.’ When the dead begin speaking to sixteen-year-old Kim Nguyen, her peaceful childhood is over. Suddenly everyone wants to exploit her new talent – her family, the Vietnamese government and even the spirits themselves. The Other Shore is a delicate meditation on the nature of ghosts, belief and how the future is shaped by the past.

Lake Hoan Kiem, Hanoi (Wikipedia*)

A near-drowning on Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi changes Kim’s life. (This lake in central Hanoi is a sacred lake with a powerful mythology embodied in the temple that you can see in the picture).  Thanks to her grandmother’s intervention to protect the shrine of their ancestors when the Communist government was at its most rigid in suppressing religion, the goddess Quan Âm saves Kim’s life and gives her the power of reading the thoughts of others if she touches them.  But it turns out to be a dubious gift.

Kim is only sixteen but the psychic power makes her grow up fast.  She soon learns that the thoughts of her parents and sister are shallow, greedy and manipulative. Her sister has always been the preferred daughter, and Kim’s days are blighted by anxiety that she may never fulfil the expectation that she should marry.  Her father exploits her power to raise money to pay for her sister’s wedding, and before long Communist party officials demand that she work for them to identify the restless spirits that are interfering with a road project where a mass grave has been found.

Whereas H G Wells’ novel used a semi-scientific device to enable invisibility in The Invisible Man, the psychic gifts in The Other Shore derive from the spirit world, and the sceptical reader not only has to accept the idea that Kim can identify bodies in mass graves through the restless spirits that have not been laid to rest, but also that a 21st century government would commission her to do it.  Fortunately, the sceptical reader can find meaning in other aspects of the novel.

Among the ‘hungry ghosts’ in the mass graves are the remains of soldiers and civilians from both sides in the civil war and also the American military.  Aged only sixteen, Kim’s communion with the spirits of these dead means that she learns about all kinds of atrocities, including rape, which she is too shy to reveal to her minders.  But she is also shocked to see that whereas the remains of Vietnamese from the victorious north are treated with respect and restored to their families for burial, those from the south are tossed to one side.  As she realises when she sees the deference shown to Americans searching for the remains of MIA soldiers (Missing In Action), the differential treatment is more than settling old scores:

‘Do many Americans come over to make peace with the dead?’ I asked.
‘Yes.  They are haunted by ma hon, the hungry ghosts that died violently far from family and friends.’
‘Are you haunted by hungry ghosts?’ I asked.
Bá Phúc closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened his eyes, his gaze far away.  ‘I was haunted by my unit. Most of them died in an ambush. But I found them and put them to rest with their families. That’s how I came to work for the government as a psychic.’
The silence in the car was unnerving. Then Bá Phúc seemed to come back to the present. ‘The work we do is important,’ he said again.
I bit my tongue, wondering about the southern ghosts.  It was wrong that we were pleasing the Americans and could not find peace among our own countrymen.’ (p.72)

Civil war scars run deep, as we know from Northern Ireland, Spain and even the American Civil War.  Naively, I later realised, I was surprised when on holiday in Vietnam, by the unease our northern tour guide felt when he was in the south.  And—back at home—I was displeased to learn, when The Spouse and I hosted a young man from Hanoi who was studying at the University of Melbourne, that he avoided the predominantly southern Vietnamese community in our city because they recognised his northern accent and abused him.  So it seems to me that there is courage in Hoa Pham’s novella, when she speaks up for reconciliation between north and south.  It also makes perfect sense to me that she has chosen to site Kim’s flight to freedom in America rather than in Australia.  It generalises the author’s critique of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) politics.  As the Vietnamese American interpreter Khôi tells Kim:

Khôi’s face fell. ‘They’re mostly older people scarred by the war.  You are the first one I’ve met that is my age.  Once they knew I was going back to Viet Nam they stopped talking to me.’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘Viet Kieu politics can be complex too.  They will call anyone a Communist for daring to have anything to do with Viet Nam.  Even going here on holiday. If you use the southern flag in an artwork they will accuse you of dishonouring the flag no matter what your intentions were,’ Khôi told me. (p.94)

21st century America, much like Australia, has by this time become less welcoming to Vietnamese refugees than they were in the immediate aftermath of the war, and Kim soon finds that it’s not the paradise of freedom that she expected.  As in many fictions written for the YA market, the characterisation of the young protagonists in The Other Shore shows them to be judgemental of adults, who are universally unsatisfactory by comparison with the idealistic adolescents.  Kim’s coming of age is profoundly complex because of the cross-cultural issues explored in the book, but she is a teenager after all…

NB Throughout this review there are some diacritics missing from the Vietnamese names and places because my keyboard can’t reproduce them.

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).

*Photo attribution: By vi:User:DHN – vi:File:Tháp Rùa.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5606350

Author: Hoa Pham
Title: The Other Shore
Publisher: Seizure by Xoum, 2014, 190 pages
ISBN: 9781922057969
Source: personal library, purchased from Seizure Online, $14.95 AUD (digital editions also available)

Also available from Fishpond: The Other Shore

 


Responses

  1. Lisa, one of the best books in the genre about the flip-side of losing a”super-power” is Silverberg’s DYING INSIDE. It follows the gradual decline of a telepath who gradually loses his ability to read minds at will and slowly becomes “alone”. Very well done.

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    • Hello Perry, that sounds most interesting! I mean, what makes this genre work for any sceptic, IMO, is the exploration of the psychological impact on the individual who has the power. Like those spy stories where it’s not the spying that’s the focus, it’s the psychological effect of having to live a double life and the impact on relationships. As in The Sympathiser and Christopher Koch’s The Memory Room.

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  2. The problems of being telepathic are quite often discussed in SF and no doubt in Fantasy, which I don’t read. I’ve run into the distaste of Australian Vietnamese for Vietnamese from the north too. We can only hope it disappears in another generation – though neither the US nor former Yugoslavia give us much evidence for that.

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    • Yes, I think you’re right about it being a theme in SF (mainly dystopias) and probably fantasy. For me, there has to be a purpose for using it, and in this book it’s what enables the discourse about the differential treatment of war remains.
      However, what is noticeable is the way these spirits are characterised as utterly real in a novel that is realistic in style. It’s as if the author herself believes in ghosts.

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