1952, French Indochina. Since her mother’s death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule – and her own family’s involvement shocks her to the core…
Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she’s always dreamed of. But who can she trust in this world where no one is what they seem?
Dinah Jefferies seems to have cornered the market writing books set in areas of colonial conflict and this latest is no different. What she does very well is evoke a sense of time and place that puts you at the heart of the action.
In The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, it is the French that are the oppressors as we are taken back to 1950’s Indochina, to what we now know as Vietnam. Set mostly in Hanoi, this tells the story of sisters Sylvie and Nicole. Born to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, Sylvie takes after her father, while Nicole looks more like her (now dead) mother. In a society that is becoming more partisan, Nicole finds herself torn between her French supporting father and sister, and her obvious Vietnamese heritage. This becomes more profound when she re-opens the families old silk shop in the Old Town and is drawn more into the Vietnamese community.
Nicole’s life is further complicated by her “friendship” with Mark, who she believes to be an American silk trader and her involvement with Tran a Vietnamese insurgent. The result of her relationship with both, results in danger for all and has life changing consequences.
Having read and enjoyed both of her previous two books, I was keen to read this. Even more so because I visited Vietnam last year, so it had a more pertinent relevance. Vietnam’s political upheaval since the end of the Second World War is a complex one. This book helps to set the scene to the background of French control and the unrest that would ultimately result in what we in the west know as the Vietnam War, though in Vietnam this is known as the American War.
It was easy for me to be drawn into the unfolding plot as I already had allegiances as to where my sympathies would lie. The story was well told and Hanoi came to life in the telling. The Old Town is a compact and bustling place and remains the same today, so it was easy to visualise. Less easy at times to accept, if I’m honest, were some Nicole’s actions which seemed ill judged and naive. However, it’s a long time since I was 18 and I am probably viewing it from my aging perspective.
It is a story that will keep you engaged, as it has a cast of characters that range from sympathetic to almost pantomime villain, but they all add to the story. As ever, the fact that it reflects what could have been reality for many Hanoians makes it more poignant. I can happily recommend this book and on a lighter note, if you ever find yourself faced with an “egg coffee” try it, it really isn’t that bad!
I received a review copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.