Genre: Literary fiction
Author: Thao Thai
Content warnings: Domestic abuse, grief, death
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: a slow and sombre book centering on messy intergenerational trauma between mothers and daughters
Banyan Moon follows three generations of Vietnamese women dealing with the aftereffects of the death of their matriarch. Family secrets rise to the surface and so are the things left unsaid. This is definitely not a joyful read, so if you do want something slow and mellow, I’d save this for a rainy, gloomy day.
Here, we are timeless, and without agenda. Around us, the quiet pall of loss. And something more. A timid hope peeking out, like the first cracks in an eggshell.
There is a strong sense of place, specifically in the way life plays out for the family in small-town Florida. The Banyan House takes a life of its own, representing the tangled roots and histories of their family. This book first situates itself with Ann, an illustrator who has a seemingly perfect life with her rich professor boyfriend and lavish home — that is until she receives a positive pregnancy test and news that her beloved grandmother, Minh has passed away. She packs her bags, returns to Florida and comes to face this reality with her mother Huong, whom she has an estranged relationship with. A large part of the novel consists of both of them navigating the aftermath of this death, burdened with hoards of objects Minh collected in their family home, the Banyan House.
To me, there has always been something unearthly about babies. They exist on the fringe of the sublime. I trust their wisdom more than I do that of grown men. Yet it felt difficult to love my daughter in the way she needed.
A prominent feature of the book is the parallel narrative of Minh’s adolescence in war-torn Vietnam, from her struggles as a young mother to her determination to search for a better life as she sets out to migrate to America. I was first drawn to this book through its premise of mother and daughter relationships, but it left much to be desired. The secrets weren’t as shocking as the blurb made them out to be and the rough relationship between Ann and Huong still left me asking why. I got that what ran through their family lines was their history of violent and devastating relationships with the men around them, but there was still so much between them that I was curious about.
I think there’s something so heartbreakingly beautiful about boys— their softness, their vulnerability, before the world tells them that they must be something else. What could the men who hurt us have been, had they been loved enough?
The three perspectives and timelines were sometimes hard to distinguish and I often found myself checking to keep track of who was narrating. Minh had the strongest story and the book teetered towards this magical realism through her perspective as an almost ghost and guardian-like figure following her passing. This was probably the most intriguing part of the story, coupled with specific quotes that really hit the nail on the head when it comes to inheriting messy intergenerational trauma.
But I’ve never been sound of mind. I come from a tribe of women who are ravaged and joyous, loud, raging, tied to our own convoluted histories. We are a knot of branches, mud-speckled and ever searching, and the man to make his way inside is someone who must grow from the same earth, the same brokenness. Or maybe, the men who come to us will only ever be visitors. We claim squatters’ rights in our tangled histories.
Family will always be complicated and messy, but there is always a desire to do better for each other as future generations come about. Despite everything, this book did a great job of emphasising the ways we stay tethered to each other, no matter the distance. I just found I wasn’t as captivated as I thought I was going to be.