Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($22.95)
by Brian Foye
Single, female, American, born in the 1960s and so too young for any first-hand experience with the American war in Vietnam: these rough facts function as a scaffold for Dana Sachs's experiences in Vietnam. Her new memoir, The House on Dream Street, speaks in an earnest, authentic voice about both her love for the place and the changes it brought about in her.
Sachs spent more than half the 1990s in Vietnam, most of it in Hanoi. She became fluent in the language—not an easy feat, since Vietnamese is a tonal language where rising or falling pitch can mean the difference between "elder" and "fish"—and worked, among other jobs, as an English teacher and journalist. She also fell in love with Phai, a lonely motorbike mechanic who watches Chinese ninja on television and smokes endless packs of 555 cigarettes.
Perhaps too much of the book is spent with the forlorn Phai. He's in love with Dana Sachs, or at least he's in love with the idea of her, and she returns his glances. Soon the glances turn to shy kisses, then awkward love making, then a recognition (by Sachs) of their separateness, then a studied effort (by Sachs) to avoid any glances at all. Ultimately, Phai is no match for Todd, a Berkeley graduate student who packs up and meets her in Vietnam. That Sachs has some clear things to say about nationality, gender, and cross cultural relationships helps to fill some embarrassing spaces. That she later marries Todd, and they return to Vietnam with a son, helps bring the memoir back from melodrama.
The House on Dream Street, however, may disappoint those readers who have read Sachs's previous work. Among other pieces, Sachs wrote a compelling piece for "Destination: Vietnam" about a trip to the pottery kilns of Bat Trang with Nguyen Huy Thiep—something akin to walking through Paris with Samuel Beckett. While some of Sachs's other writing for "Destination: Vietnam" makes it into the memoir, it's puzzling that Nguyen Huy Thiep is relegated to a brief line on the Acknowledgement page. There's also no mention of Sachs's sharp, keen-witted translations of Nguyen's "Crossing the River" and "Remembrance of the Countryside" or Le Minh Khue's "A Small Tragedy." Surely the great contemporary literature of Vietnam was part of Sachs's personal and professional journey through that country. The author, or her editors, should have made room for it in The House on Dream Street.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000