In spite of the pretty cover, this is not a charming story about manufacturing and selling silk in Vietnam: it’s about the Vietnam war. Not what we think of as ‘The Vietnam War’ of the late sixties and early seventies, which cast such a blight over my youth, but the fifties war between the French colonial power and the Vietminh. The silk merchant has not one but two daughters. Sylvie, the elder, takes after her French father in looks and is glamorous and European-looking. Nicole, thanks to their Vietnamese mother, is petite and dark and can pass for Vietnamese. This is Nicole’s story.
All her life, Nicole has felt second best to Sylvie; the less loved and appreciated daughter. In 1952 the family is living in Hanoi. Father declares that he is making over the entire silk business to Sylvie, giving Nicole only the silk shop in the old, Vietnamese part of town. She resents this but comes to love the business and the people around her. Back home, she had fallen for Mark, an American and probably a CIA agent. Through the shop she meets a young Vietnamese man who tries to turn her to the Vietminh (or Viet Minh) cause. She’s already suffered from being called a Métisse, a half-breed. Now she’s told that one day she will have to choose where her allegiance lies.
The poor girl is only eighteen but is faced with impossible choices. She has found out that her father and Sylvie are capable of terrible things in the defence of French interests. Later she learns at first hand of the cruelty of the rebels. This is not pleasant reading. To her, neither side seems entirely in the right and she has no idea whom to trust. I must admit to muttering ‘silly girl!’ while reading of her experiences. In any given situation, she seems to make the wrong decision. Central to the story is Nicole’s relationship with ‘troubled’ Sylvie. Did she really try to drown Nicole when they were children? When their world collapses around them after Dien Bien Phu, will Sylvie betray her own sister?
The book deals with an unusual subject and as in The Tea Planter’s Wife the descriptions of the country bring the place and period vividly before the reader. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter will be published by Penguin next month and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.