Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran

Xuan and her children never talked about this dance. They did it over and over again, playing their parts faithfully and acting as though the other had not transgressed.

While I appreciate the conceit of Daughters of the New Year, its execution did not win me over. The summary may be somewhat at fault, as it gave me an impression that Daughters of the New Year would be something along the lines of Butter Honey Pig Bread, A Kind of Freedom, and
Things We Lost to the Water, or even something along the lines of family sagas like The Arsonists’ City, The Vanishing Half, or most books penned by Elif Shafak. I thought that as each chapter switches between the sisters’ and mother’s povs, we would be given glimpses, either in self-contained chapters or in the form of flashbacks, into the experiences of their female relatives and ancestors. The line that the sisters would “encounter strange glimpses of long-buried secrets” made me even think that there would be some interplay between past and present. What we get in actuality is something closer to Homegoing and Commonwealth, but not quite as effective. That is, each chapter reads like a vignette that doesn’t necessarily add up to create a bigger picture. Maybe if the chapters had given us an overview of the characters’ lives, as Gyasi does in Homegoing, these characters would have felt more fully realized than they were. I am not against books that are heavy on telling and light on showing, especially if the author’s storytelling is engaging and vivid enough…but here I found myself bored by the narration. The scenes and dialogues that do interrupt the otherwise heavy-on-the-telling narrative were far less interesting and poignant that the moments that are glossed over or barely alluded to. Additionally, as I said, the sections from the present-day characters and the ‘past’ ones do not coalesce together. Maybe if the past sections had been interspersed throughout the more ‘recent’ chapters, maybe then I would have felt differently. As it is, each chapter takes us back in time. Like counting backwards if you will. Or a forwarding back. This is a pity because I found the sisters’ and their mother’s present-day dynamics and circumstances much more interesting than, say, reading overlong chapters detailing their experiences at school (where they are bullied and ignored by their white and vietnamese-american peers). I found these chapters focusing on their childhood and adolescence to be predictable and I was frustrated by the way the narrative would give super-detailed descriptions of humiliating situations. That is not to say that scenes that make you squirm serve no function or cannot build tension, after all, one of my favorite authors is a champion when it comes to very awkward or straight-up uncomfortable scenes (often rooted in everyday scenarios or a result of a seemingly casual/ordinary interaction). But here the author offers few compelling insights into these characters and their motivations, focusing instead on giving us a rather dry blow-by-blow account of what happened. There was something repetitive in the way these chapters would unfold, something static even about the scenes and events that are being recounted. The sisters, their mother, and their other relatives serve the role of narrative vehicles through which their chapter can explore a certain scenario (so it is not so much about them but the situation). Their names and their Vietnamese zodiac signs are their main distinguishers, but these did not convey the kind of people they were. It was really frustrating that we never get to read chapters following their present-day circumstances.
I wanted to read Nhi’s experiences in the Bachelor-esque reality TV show or to see Trac try to reconcile herself with her sexuality. I was even interested in seeing how the recently divorced Xuan would cope if her youngest daughter also left home. I was even interested in her ex-husband, the girls’ father. Did ageing really wear down his temper?

I would have loved to see more interactions, especially between the sisters. But they have very few scenes together and they don’t think about one another that much. It would have been nice to see how their bond, or their lack of one, changed from childhood to adulthood. But instead, we get these vignettes showing us how the sisters are excluded by everyone, and that they had no friends growing up (even if sometimes the narrative will mention them being friends with white affluent girls who lead idyllic lives). We are shown that Xuan looks down on the Vietnamese community and that this causes her daughters to be bullied by Vietnamese-American children, but I wondered how the husband felt about it or whether the girls eventually try to befriend other children. The narrative does render how hyper-visible yet invisible the sisters feel. Some of their white peers ‘forget’ that they are not in fact white. At one point one of the sisters finds herself contributing to anti-Blackness as a way of fitting in with her white sorority. The story definitely made many incisive observations around race, whiteness, and internalized racism, as well as depicting the realities of feeling alienated by a culture or a language. Alas, the narrative often prioritized boring details, such as a character putting clothes on, over more complex ones.

While reading this I was bored and frustrated. The characters struck me as thinly drawn and the prose monotonous. A more cohesive narrative arc would have could have made these chapters feel more in sync with one another, but as things stand, I found the forwarding back blunt. Just over the halfway mark, the chapters take us back to Xuan’s youth and her experiences before America. Here the tone felt quite different to the previous chapters, which may have been intentional except that even theme-wise these chapters seem to share little in common with the preceding chapters. Some of these chapters pack a lot and the impact of what happens is stunted by the chapters’ length and by the narrative’s tendency to summarise and recount (as opposed to show).

The only thing that felt purposeful, between these past and present chapters, was learning about Xuan’s trophy. I think I would have preferred this novel if it had either gone for a more traditional family saga structure, or gone for a more linked narratives/multiple voices type of thing like in Calling for a Blanket Dance, and in The Travelers. But instead Daughters of the New Year reads like something that doesn’t know what it wants to be…

All in all, this book was not what I was hoping it would be. Do not however let my unenthusiastic take on this book dissuade you from giving it a chance as YMMV.

If you do read it I recommend you don’t opt for the audiobook which likely contributed to the frustration I felt towards this book. Even in the chapters set in Vietnam, where we follow Vietnamese characters and see them interact, the narrator’s character voices for Xuan, and her mother & co, is the same exaggerated ‘broken’ English voice she uses in the American chapters…why? The characters are fluent in Vietnamese, why make them sound as they do when they are speaking a foreign language ?!

My rating: ★ ★ ½ stars

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