Book Reviews

Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew X. Pham

Harmony Books, USA

book cover

"Every person I knew had brothers, sons, cousins, or uncles on opposite sides of both wars: first the French, then the American," reflects Thong Van Pham. "It was a conflict between brothers. No matter which side won, the family lost." 

The story of Vietnam, its cycles of war and dismemberment, has been exhaustively chronicled by historians and memoirists, novelists and playwrights, poets and film makers, Americans and Vietnamese. Eaves of Heaven is, however, something completely original. Written in the restrained yet powerful voice of his own father, Andrew Pham weaves a brilliant tapestry of vignettes, which skip back and forth across time in a shuffled chronology, telling the story of his father, his family dynasty, and his country.

Thong Van Pham’s family has ruled for generations over a vast estate in the fertile flatlands of Northern Vietnam. Thong’s idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end, however, just after the Mid-Autumn Harvest Moon Festival in 1940, "the last good year," with its scores of friends, relatives, and peasants, its elaborate heirloom dishes of young stork meat and five-spice roasted piglets, its fabulous fireworks and paper lanterns in the shapes of stars with spinning arms, fat open-mouthed carps and eagles with flapping wings. In the absence of Thong’s dashing and distant playboy father, it is his loving and intelligent mother who presides over the festivities, warning him nonetheless that "the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses… For every long stretch of flawless days, there waited a mighty storm just below the horizon."

Horrific scenes follow pell-mell: the Japanese invasion, the pillage of Vietnam’s food and livestock, the torture and execution of thousands, the frenzied flights of refugees and the Great Famine of 1944, in which so many people die on the roadsides around the family estate that their body parts become macabre playthings: "I remembered kicking a skull," Thong says. "There were many. My friends and I picked one that was detached from a body … round enough to roll like the grapefruits we once used. Bouncing across the dirt, it had no human feature. Ravens had picked the eye sockets clean."

In 1949, with one small suitcase apiece, Thong’s family flees their ancestral home for Hanoi. Five years later, after the Geneva Accords gives the northern half of the country to the Vietnamese communists, they join tens of thousands of North Vietnamese fleeing south, where they find meager refuge in the teeming Cho Lon slum on the outskirts of Saigon. Thong’s broken father descends into an opium haze, leaving his destitute family to run a tiny noodle shop that fails and a primitive country inn which becomes a popular whorehouse. Yet in the midst of this counterpoint of brutality and tragedy, there are scenes of startling beauty and transcendence. The shy and scholarly Thong graduates from high school and spends an idyllic summer as a teacher in the gorgeous coastal town of Phan Thiet, where he falls in love with his future wife, a respite that ends with his draft into the South Vietnamese army, where he endures years of treachery and corruption, fear and loss, waste and deprivation, until the fall of Saigon in 1975. With the remaining escape routes closing, Thong and his family undertake a last desperate flight to the coast, where he’s seized and thrown into in a Vietcong prison for a year of brainwashing and forced labor.

Along with a large cast of marvelously colorful personalities—cousins, aunties, stepmothers, half-siblings, neighbors, friends, servants, even bureaucrats and educators—Vietnam itself becomes a central character. Nine-year-old Thong, playing hide and seek with his cousin, finds "a boy bundled in a blanket beneath a pile of hay at the back corner of the barn. Shriveled and bloated with starvation, he looked like some sort of bug, all head and belly, big-eyed and heaving ribs, almost hairless, semi-conscious and possibly mute… It appeared he had crawled into the stable to die." Throughout the successive waves of violence—from the French occupation to the cataclysmic Vietnam War—the recovery and ultimate tragedy of this foundling remains a stunning personification of Thong’s homeland. 

Following Pham’s Kiriyama Prize-winning Catfish and Mandala (1999), this tour-de-force offers an entirely new look at the disintegration and ultimate transcendence of one man, his family, and his war-torn country. Despite the fact that no one emerges from the maelstrom unscathed, Thong insists that "some joys were so simple as to be incorruptible in memory, untouchable, neither by distance nor by tragedy." In his quiet and compelling voice, in the absence of sentimentality, sensationalism, and chronology, Pham gives his father’s story a remarkable depth and power, originality and authenticity.

An unforgettable memoir.

Reviewed by Abby Pollak