If I Had Two Lives is a story of a child who spends her childhood in Vietnam, her early adulthood in America then makes a return visit to her homeland to confront aspects of her past she wishes to resolve.
In Part One she is escorted by her solider to a secretive military camp where her mother has spent the last four years, she is seven years old and has been separated from her mother for four years.
The mother is distant, busy, under suspicion, she is an energy consultant, the girl tries to please her, get her attention. She struggles to connect with her in the way her heart yearns, becoming overly attentive to trying to please her in a way that children who aren’t able to take having parents there for them for granted might react.
Whenever she has to travel anywhere she is accompanied by this same solider. She clings to him even though he discourages it. She befriends a motherless little girl she finds playing a game stacking bricks, their time together establishes some of the few memories of childhood they will retain, both haunted by the last time they see each other.
There is a strange, unsafe vibe around the little girl’s father. She develops a desire to hurt something, after killing a fish with her bare hands, her angst morphs into thoughtless cruelty towards the little girl. Suddenly her time there is over, she is again escorted, this time across the China border onto a plane to America.
Years later, I understood that Mother had made sure nobody saw me enter the camp and nobody saw me leave; that the erasure of my records in Vietnam would be complete when I boarded the plane…I told myself that once I got to the US, I would turn around, take a different plane back to Vietnam, go get the little girl so we could leave the camp together for good. We’d talked about escaping together so many times that being forced to go without her was unthinkable.
In Part Two the girl has been sent to America, her mother having promised (unfulfilled) to follow her there, drifting from the homes of relatives to friends, she outwears her welcome with them all and becomes isolated, alone. Haunted by the memories of her youth, she follows a stranger home because he reminds her of her solider. She befriends a young woman who reminds her of the little girl. Her life is laced with illusion, faces that morph into those who have haunted her past. She is not the only one with a past, living with the effects of trauma and her attempts to reconnect expose her to the nightmares of others, also trying to remember or forget.
“Try telling them some other tales that don’t fit their presumptions. Vietnam” – he dropped his cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.”
Meeting both these strangers changes the course of her life dramatically and will push her to confront her past, revisit her home country and look for what she has lost. And to make amends.
More and more I resembled my own mother as I with-held facts and became an accomplice in helping my daughters obscure their origins.
It’s a hard book to describe and one that is disturbing in parts to read, laced with a sadness for a girl that it seems was unwanted, although she was given opportunities, just not love or affection, in turn her own life seems without purpose and missing something that can be felt not described. Her return will provide her a different perspective and bring her closer to understanding her mother and her intention for her daughter, realising she has something of that in her as well.
“When you leave the old country at an age not young enough to get adopted into the new and not old enough to know how to reject it, you become this mutant thing: between borders, between languages, between memories.” He pressed his temples. “If you ask me, I think it’s easier to reinvent than to retrace. You’re not the only one, you know. Look at this city and its faces. You’re not the only one with an ungraspable history.”
I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but it was thought-provoking and made me wonder about the inspiration and experience behind writing it and of the number of sad lives being lived by others, neither from one place nor another, without families, trying to make sense of the world. And of effects of unhealed trauma and displacement.
“If I had two lives to live, I would have done it differently,” she said. “Anything worth having requires your sacrifice, even your personal happiness.”
More than storytelling, despite being fiction, this novel is about what happens to those who leave their homeland, a victim in ways to what they have left, how some are able to manage their past experience, using it to try to improve the situation for others, while others remain a victim to forces and feelings they find difficult to live with, causing them to inflict pain on others or when it gets too much, on themselves, without seeming to, or unable to care who gets hurt in the process.
I am reminded of Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner whose family were evicted from their homeland, she uses fiction in her novel In The Shadow of the Banyan to express memories born of her childhood experience, and although it was traumatic, she was determined to take what was a sad chapter in her country’s history and show us something of its beauty and culture.
It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner
Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve.
This novel was born out of the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past – a personal need to solve my childhood’s mysteries, figure out how I arrived here, and to give myself the emotional conclusions that real life doesn’t afford.
N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy to read.