Happy MLK weekend to my friends in the US! Hope you have a relaxing, fun weekend!
Today I am excited to share a review of Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai. I loved Lai’s novel in verse — Inside Out and Back Again which tells the story of a young Vietnamese refugee who comes to America with her family. This novel flips that narrative telling the story of a young girl going back to Vietnam with her grandmother.
Everything I loved about Inside Out and Back Again is in this book. The incredible details, the descriptions of food, people, and places. The emotions. The family and heritage and celebration of culture.
Book Summary: “A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai’s parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn’t know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.”
I was surprised that this novel was in prose rather than verse but I loved the writing just as much. One of the things I loved most about Inside Out and Back Again is the verse. Telling a story is so different in verse rather than prose. But it was neat to read something in prose from Lai. Her voice and talent for descriptive detail are both on display in this story. Certainly, the prose lends itself to more details and longer descriptions of how Vietnam looks and sounds, smells and tastes. I felt transported to Vietnam as though I was experiencing this country with Mai for the first time.
I really enjoyed Mai/Mia and her voice. What a meaningful journey she is able to take with her grandmother! I have a close relationship with my grandma so this really struck me. Mia begins the story very self centered and focused on what she wants to do. But slowly she begins to find things to love in Vietnam. I enjoyed her quirky friendships, her attempts to speak Vietnamese and her deep devotion to her grandmother’s quest. I loved watching her learning about her heritage and understanding why family is so important. I loved how much she helps grandmother and how she chooses to stay with her.
I learned so much learned about Vietnam! I think listening to this book would be even better to hear all the intricacies of the language. It was so interesting to learn about The War, Vietnamese language, history, architecture, food, traditions, family dynamics, and more. At times, the cultural differences seemed so stark. But at others, the similarities across humanity were surprising. I really liked how the prose was in italics for Vietnamese and how she incorporates language so cleverly–a truly bilingual book! The central plot of grandmother learning the fate of grandfather in The War was intriguing and shrouded in mystery. It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to learn about his fate.
I am so glad I read this book and hope to read it with my kids one day!
Have you read books set in Vietnam or other countries in Asia?
Which are your favorites?