Book of the Month Club: Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Mona Lisait. Latin Quarter. Photo Laura Dumitriu. Mona Lisait. Latin Quarter. Photo Laura Dumitriu.

Certainly, we both understand that at my age this trip represents my last look at the city that occupies my memories. Every person possesses a city that is truly her own. Sài Gòn is mine and I shall bow farewell before I cannot. My best and worst years interweaved into a life here. I’m certain you understand.

Mai, Californian born and bred, is bummed. Instead of spending her summer on the States’ shiny beaches, the twelve-year-old is instead on a plane with her father to help escort her grandmother, Bà, back to Vietnam. Bà and Ông (Mai’s grandfather) were both survivors of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). But for Bà, this journey back to Vietnam, despite her family living in California, this journey is special: it is one that will answer questions and, what’s more, find her husband again, who went missing in action during the war.

The book is guided by a strong plotline and characters who feel like real people. The one thing I disliked about the book was the stereotypical tween talk at the beginning: things like OMG, pop culture references, and cutesy exclamations like “soooo (insert qualification here)” and “ewww” do give flavour to the book and Mai, but I found intrusive at the same time and bouncing out of the storyline. And yet Mai, Mia as she calls herself in the States, is an interesting character: she is sassy, likes reading, and her experience with culture shock (that dial-up!) is both amusing and strangely relatable. As she socialises with locals, she makes friends with Ùt, a girl about her age, and Anh Minh, a boy who acts as a translator for her (though she does speak Vietnamese, that is her secret, at least initially).

The story that drives the plot belongs to Bà, and her relationship with her husband. Through the story, a detective tries to find out more about what happened to Ông, through the people who knew him during the war. As Bà and her husband’s story unravels through the novel, it paints a picture of a devastating war that would destroy a couple and their family. And yet the main story, even though it doesn’t seem as important, belongs to Mai, to her coming of age and learning about culture and family during a strange summer in a strange land…

Listen, Slowly is a very sweet, oddly humorous, and poignant novel that would suit young adults.