Grave at Thu Le

30 Jun 2006 by intern11

The Grave at Thu Le

Catherine Cole, Pan Macmillan, US$17.00

The Grave at Thu Le is essentially an exploration of  one family’s history. A young French woman travels from her home in Paris to Hanoi seeking to delve into her multi-hued past.

Catherine D’anyers’ great-great-grandfather was the first of her ancestors to live in the then French, colony. It was the early 1900s when Claude D’anyers arrived in the city to build a bridge spanning the Red River.

Successive generations of the family stayed on until 1954, leaving when the French fought against the Viet Minh.

Catherine finds herself enchanted by Hanoi and its attachment to her own background, as well as the ambiguity of colonial life in a country swiftly changing.

Past and present-day Hanoi is depicted in lyrical, vivid detail: a rainbow dances above dark leaves of the Emperor Tree; the Old Quarter bustles beneath “crenulated red roof tiles’”; and colonial buildings exude a sheen of mystery.

Anyone who has ever visited the Vietnamese capital will delight in Cole’s wonderfully evocative imagery, which transports the reader back to the height of its colonial period, while anyone who has not, will gain deep insight into the mood, architecture and vivacity of Vietnam, certainly prompting a future visit to experience for themselves the magic of the city.

Cole captures the heart of Hanoi and its people, weaving her narrative in and around landmarks – Hoan Kiem Lake, One Pillar Pagoda, the Army Museum, the famed Metropole Hotel and Halong Bay. The tangled legacies of the D’anyers family are, little by little, unraveled as the plot shifts from Hanoi to Paris and back. Sepia images at the beginning of each chapter of seductive pagodas, graceful façades, family portraits, a quaint cyclo – serve to further enhance the nostalgic tone.

The Grave at Thu Le meanders slowly, steadily, like a Sunday stroll through a tree-filled park. There are no thrills, no spills, no great revelations, but rather a touching narrative set in a city soaked in a fascinating, yet sometimes, turbulent history.

Jane McLean

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