by Bich Minh Nguyen
Like a well-designed chair, no matter the designer, there is something very human in scale about a novel. It is about us, whoever we are, as in the case of SHORT GIRLS. This book is ostensibly about the problems of a family caught up in one of the great migrations of our time. So broad is Bich Minh Nguyen's view of humanity and her understanding of our human predicament that the reader can sink back gratefully, as if in a favourite chair, and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.
The story is really about two young refugees from communist Viet Nam and their American-born daughters, all of whom are trying to make sense of the American way of love. But this book is universal in its appeal, in that it simply and elegantly answers some of the needs of us all: our need to understand one another; to live together as good neighbours; and to remember that the young are extremely vulnerable, no matter where they are born or how they are bred, to the pervasive influence of television.
Linny and Van, the two daughters, are pretty, highly intelligent, and about a foot shorter than the average American. Their parents were amongst the last to scramble aboard a ship leaving Saigon for the U.S.A in 1975, and Van was born in a refugee camp in California. White sponsors brought them to a dismal, cold apartment, and patronised them for years afterwards. All the trials, disappointments, bewilderment and downright poverty that followed drove the parents to squabble loudly and furiously in Vietnamese. The two little girls huddled together on the sofa and watched television. Sharing as much as they did in looks, genes and background, Linny and Van might have been expected to use similar methods of dealing with their metamorphosis from childhood into puberty and adulthood, but Bich Minh Nguyen's characters never quite do as one would expect. The girls draw apart, almost losing touch, as they deal with it all in absolutely different ways, yet survive with determination and good humour. They both experience betrayal and cope with it in a very American way. Hard and unavoidable truths about themselves in relation to Americans, especially men, almost bring them to their knees (they are rather casual Buddhists, by the way).
SHORT GIRLS is funny and sad, and sharp and witty and scathing. It is a very good novel, beautifully written, and a joy to read.