This is the second book I’ve read in the last three years on Vietnamese immigrants to the US and both have been good in different ways. Dragonfish isn’t in the same league as The Sympathizer, the latter being the best thing I’ve read this decade. But it’s still a good book and if these two books provide a baseline quality for Vietnamese-American writers, I need to be checking out more of their work.
I almost returned Dragonfish to the library before even reading it because the GoodReads reviews were…well they were not good. And GoodReads is usually a decent barometer for me to decide what I should and shouldn’t invest my time in. But since it’s not a long read, I figured I’d give it a try and I’m glad I did.
A lot of people peg this as an experimental novel. I’m not sure that’s the case. It made me think a little of Chris Abiani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas but its not nearly as strange as that book was. Really, it’s a conventional missing persons tale coupled with flashbacks. We’re not too sure where the flashbacks are coming from at first; Vu Tran is good at misdirection. But eventually, everything makes sense and it tells a familiar tale.
Being familiar doesn’t mean it’s not good. I found the backstory of Hong (aka Suzie) played out quite well over the course of the novel. Robert, the main character searching for his ex-wife for reasons that later become clear, is kind of a blank slate but the story isn’t really about him and Vu Tran is a good enough writer to realize this. There are edges that could have been smoothed to make the story more effective but that’s more of a quibble.
What Vu Tran does do well for a first writer is present sparse, crisp prose. There’s not a wasted word and that made for a smooth read, letting the story drive momentum to its conclusion (which I loved but apparently others don’t). It’s a good effort from a rookie who seems to already have found his voice. I hope he comes out with more books.