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Dragonfish by Vu Tran

By Underheather @UnderHeather

Dragonfish is a mix between a Vietnamese immigration story and a classic white-cop thriller. The story begins by introducing us to Robert Ruen, an Oakland cop who can’t seem to let go of his unexplainable love for Suzy, the Vietnamese wife who left him two years before. Through Robert’s eyes, we watch as he is dragged against his will to help Sonny, Suzy’s new husband, track her down after her disappearance days before. As Robert attempts to understand what happens, he begins to realize how little he actually knew about Suzy and her past, and must make sense of his own feelings while staying alive and keeping her abusive husband at bay. The plot is fascinating, alternating between Robert’s harrowing investigation and a set of letters that Suzy has written to someone in her past. This enhances the mystery, as we slowly become privy to the hard details of Suzy’s past in Vietnam, her struggles with mental health in the U.S., and Robert’s fantasized obsession with her.

I gotta say, though, as good as the plot was, this book really rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, I don’t think that I’m the only person who picks up a book by an author of color and expects to encounter a new and different perspective. To realize that the main character was just another whiny white guy was pretty damn disappointing. Not that authors of color only have the right to write characters of their own ethnicity, but Robert was just such a bad character in comparison to the others that I couldn’t help but wish that Tran had opted to shift perspective. Robert is often asserted to have lots of experience as a cop, and yet he constantly makes the most idiotic decisions possible. His narration constantly belittles “Suzy” and her identity, but not in a way that seems conscious—instead of reading like an out-of-touch, bitter ex, it reads like a patriarchal, xenophobic nightmare.

What makes this even more frustrating is that Tran obviously isn’t a bad writer. The Vietnamese characters are fascinating, and he brings their complicated pasts and personalities to life in slowly and subtly, in keeping with the general murkiness of the narrative. The revelation of Suzy’s history through her letters is fantastic and moving. It’s this fact that makes me criticize Robert so much, because it’s so obvious that Tran can do better!

If all that isn’t enough, Tran made the bizarre (and lazy) decision to occasionally use Robert as an almost omniscient narrator, having him describe in great detail events which, in the story, he has no way of knowing about. Maybe we’re supposed to believe that he’s imagining these things, but that’s not clear and even if it were true it’s still a cheap trick. If you can’t figure out a way to explain what’s going on in the story, make a character who witnessed it tell Robert about it, or have him find a video showing what happened, or do ALMOST ANYTHING rather than break down that wall and turn Robert into an unbelievable narrative tool in your attempt to move the story forward.

The plot and the Vietnamese characters were enough to make me hang on to this book and enjoy it, but looking back the most prominent thing I recall is how the main character held the book back, so that it seems more mediocre than it is. A good book shouldn’t feel that way if it had as remarkable a plot as this one. I absolutely think it’s one that people should read, because the intensity of the story and the other characters is brilliant. Just brace yourself for a lot of eye-rolling and disgusted snorts along the way.

Check out Vu Tran’s website!

Want to buy it?
It’s here on Amazon and also here at Barnes & Noble.

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