BANYAN MOON, by Thao Thai
In Thao Thai’s debut novel, “Banyan Moon,” Huong Tran, one of the story’s protagonists, confides, “After years of living with my mother, her prudishness and stingy love caging me tight, I longed desperately for something free, something that felt attached to me and no one else.” Feelings of entrapment and spite are prominent in this book, a multi-perspective family saga that chronicles the lives of three Vietnamese women from 1960s Vietnam to present-day Florida.
The novel opens with a flashback, set in 1998, when grandmother Minh, mother Huong and child Ann traipse along the beach of Florida’s Gulf Coast, noses twitching from the “red-tide-scummed ocean.” Tensions are high as Huong observes with envy the palpable closeness between her mother and her 7-year-old daughter. She struggles to reconcile the nurturing Minh in front of her with the one she remembers from her youth, an aloof single mother fleeing war-torn Vietnam. What’s more, she feels this new Minh threatens her own coveted role as mother. When it comes to caring for Ann, Minh consoles while Huong reprimands. The difference in their instincts makes Huong feel alienated — she cannot compete with Minh’s newfound forbearance.
In the present day, Ann is an illustrator living in Michigan with her wealthy, white boyfriend. Her connection to her mother remains frayed while she continues to sanctify Minh. Yearning for autonomy, she has constructed an “ill-fitting cashmere life” away from home, calling Huong only to inquire about family recipes. In a succession of brutal revelations just as she is questioning her happiness, Ann learns she is pregnant, that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and that her beloved grandmother has died. The only person she can turn to is the one she fled: Huong.
So begins Ann’s journey to the Banyan House, a sprawling Gothic dwelling that lies in the swamplands of Florida, which both she and Huong have inherited after Minh’s death. Pivotal moments for both mother and daughter have transpired in this dilapidated mansion — it’s the place where both Huong and Ann were raised, where Huong decided she would leave her abusive husband, Vinh, and where calamitous secrets have been long buried.
Readers will find something pleasurably atmospheric about the Banyan House. “You’re all growing strange, speaking in riddles. Soon your hair will get witchy,” Huong’s brother, Phuoc, says in one of his many attempts to take ownership of the house so he can renovate and possibly sell it.
Without their revered matriarch and mediator, Huong and Ann must contend with their fractured relationship. Perceived slights, betrayals and failings to understand each other permeate their dynamic. Their confrontations can err on the side of sentimentality, but they are often balanced by Thai’s keen insight: “The shame of motherhood is that your instincts never leave,” Huong thinks, “even as everyone decides they aren’t needed anymore.”
“Banyan Moon” is strongest when exploring the unique blend of contempt and fury that can exist between mothers and daughters. It is quietly devastating to witness Ann’s battle to forgive a guilt-ridden Huong. Thai renders these feelings with nuance and a familiarity that is sometimes difficult to bear.
The story’s maneuvering through time and space provides a roundness to the Tran women, allowing readers to see aspects of, and similarities between, each character that they keep from one another. Each woman withholds truths from the rest of her family in an effort to protect them, but that impulse is also what prevents them from being there for one another.
In the wake of Minh’s death, Ann yearns to discover more about her. Rifling through the Banyan House to find remnants of her grandmother, she uncovers a secret that could break Huong’s heart. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Ann, Huong is guarding a secret of her own. We are all capable of terrible things, Minh’s mother once told her. But what if the terrible thing is also the kindest? “Banyan Moon” urges readers to consider whether it is best for some truths to remain hidden — whether deceit can ultimately be an act of love.
Kayla Maiuri is the author of “Mother in the Dark.”
BANYAN MOON | By Thao Thai | 330 pp. | Mariner Books | $30