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The Tapestries    by Kien Nguyen order for
by Kien Nguyen
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Tapestries is set in early 1900s Vietnam when its last kings still held some power. It's a tale of romance, revenge, and of the balance between them. The main protagonists are Dan Nguyen and his first wife Ven, married in to Dan's rich family (in Cam Le Village near the Imperial City of Hue) to be an unpaid servant and nursemaid when he was only seven years old. Dan's father is kind, but his wives treat Ven harshly and she labors hard and long in kitchen and rice field, and makes her new husband 'tiny banana pies in sticky rice'.

Suddenly, enemies of the Nguyen family implicate them in a plot to revolt against French control of the country. Ven forces Dan to watch the execution of family members from hiding and exhorts him to avenge them. This is when they hear Dan's father speak of the existence of a pirate treasure, in a bid to save his men. Afterwards, when she is ill and unable to support Dan, Ven sells him as 'Mouse' into servitude in the home of his father's enemies, the Toans. In a Romeo and Juliet twist to the plot, Dan grows up to love his lovely and kind young mistress Tai May (the granddaughter of his father's killer) and to embroider roses.

Other intriguing characters include Con, an abandoned child who grew to become a tutor to the Toan household, and was unjustly imprisoned. When he returned, badly scarred, Con 'exuded the ferocity of a cornered mongoose', and became the village 'time-teller'. Then there is Lady Chin, wife of a mandarin and the mother of Tai May's affianced husband. She has lived her life sheltered in the confines of the Purple Forbidden City as lady-in-waiting to the Queen-Mother, Lady Thuc. At first Lady Chin seems a nonentity, but develops through the story into someone who, seemingly weak, exerts a strong influence on the outcome.

There is quite a contrast in this tale between cruel details of barbaric punishments and enchanting cultural events like the Harvest Moon Festival. This is a masked carnival on the Perfume River, during which the young lovers admit their feelings and come to terms with the barrier between them. It is Dan's faith in Tai May, and his ability to forego vengeance that finally brings them together. They ride a bicycle into their future and glimpse 'the first rose of spring'.

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