Review | Wednesday 15 August 2012
Mischa is a 35-year-old woman who left her abusive marriage six years ago to settle in Vietnam. When she meets Cal, a passionate and attractive 18-year-old, they begin an affair. Cue steamy sex scenes.
The relationship between Mischa and Cal is a challenging one. Maguire doesn’t try to kid us that Cal is a mature-for-his-age young man ready for this relationship; she openly explores the complex dynamic that could develop between a grown-up woman and a sometimes-sulky teenager who are attracted to each other, both physically and mentally.
Their attraction is not easy to define; there’s motherly affection in there and definite lust. Mischa thinks almost obsessively of Cal’s physicality, as though seeking to reclaim her youth and, except for one scene where Mischa expresses surprise that Cal is interested in her at all, she seems relatively disinterested in her own body.
Yet the underlying love affair in this novel is the one Mischa has with her chosen home, Hanoi, and again this is more complicated than it first appears. While Mischa’s strong feelings for Vietnam are evident, there’s a strange disparity here. Despite being obviously eager to discover the folklore and customs of this culture, Mischa has also never applied herself to learn the language or connect directly with Vietnamese people. Instead, she has formed superficial friendships with the expat community and these friends, who are occasionally comic relief and more frequently obnoxious, read dangerously close to being caricatures.
In contrast, Maguire’s re-imagining of Vietnam is compelling and vibrant, complete with the smell of ‘fish sauce and sewerage and charcoal and pork’, and ‘whole roasted dog in the marketplace’. This book vividly captures the atmosphere of being overwhelmed by a strange city, positioning Mischa as our guide for learning more about the hidden culture. For someone who has never travelled there, I felt it very much came to life for me within these pages.