Book Review - Anam

Melbourne-based author André Dao took 12 years to write this impressive debut novel, a profound meditation on remembrance and forgiveness inspired by his Vietnamese family’s experience of war and migration.

The birth of his daughter prompts a human rights lawyer of Vietnamese heritage to embark on a quest to understand his grandparents’ traumatic past and his own identity. Studying at Cambridge, the nameless narrator decides to write their story as part of his thesis.

After the Vietnam war, his grandfather, a Catholic intellectual, was detained without trial for 10 years in the notorious Chí Hòa prison in Ho Chi Minh City. Amnesty adopted him as a political prisoner. Trying to make sense of this incarceration, how it shaped his own career path, the narrator realises that “the stories my grandfather told me were all part of a bigger history”.

Recognising the many names and identities imposed on Vietnam, he calls it Anam: “a place with a curious topography, bending as it does towards memory, and whose guiding principle is anamnesis”. This renaming allows him the distance to examine the fallout from the war on his family members who followed different paths. His grandfather was allied with the Americans; his older brother was a communist. Both sides committed atrocities. The narrator wonders if they can ever be reconciled, or whether he should strive for forgiveness, as his grandfather does. He explores the stoicism of his grandmother, who brings up her children in 1980s France as she waits for her husband to be released. The narrator’s father settled in Australia and the desire to belong is central to the book.

Dao combines philosophy, fiction and history to great effect. Moving back and forth in time and place (from Melbourne to Cambridge, Paris and Hanoi), he interweaves the family’s recollections with imagined scenes, fragments of official documents, recorded interviews and research, while acknowledging the impossibility of writing a definitive version of the past. That is the slippery nature of memory, Dao concludes, in this extraordinary work of autofiction.

Originally published by The Observer