In the opening pages of E.M. Tran’s compelling debut novel, Daughters of the New Year, matriarch Xuan Trung buys a Vietnamese zodiac calendar from a strip mall in New Orleans East, planning to advise her three daughters how best to pursue good fortune in the new year. The oldest daughter receives her mother’s advice over American-style pork, without making eye contact, while the youngest stares blankly at a computer. The middle daughter receives her guidance via a talent agent; she’s filming a reality show in the vein of The Bachelor in Vietnam and has left her mother no contact information.
The novel balances the absurd against the traumatic, deftly using humor to approach formative experiences in ways that feel both tender and honest. Tran orients the reader through watershed historical events: the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, September 11, 2011, and the fall of Saigon. Xuan recalls their evacuation during Katrina, recounting that their receipt of her sister’s hospitality still required “sacrifices. They’d had to watch, for instance, Lan’s fourth husband work out on his Bowflex in the living room, even though it was ninety degrees inside.” His groans counter the images that sisters Nhi and Trieu absorb onscreen of New Orleans residents fleeing the city in boats, captioned by a reporter’s voice: “They look like refugees. They are refugees.” Tran develops characters completely immersed in the minutiae of their own lives, even as governments and cities unravel around them. The effect is a novel with stunning historical scope and precise, emotional immediacy.
Like Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Tran’s novel shifts narrators and arcs backwards in time, revealing Tran’s remarkable control as a storyteller. Each Trung woman’s voice is distinct, yet their experiences resonate against one another. Youngest daughter Trieu rebelliously sews her own uniform to fit in during her vulnerable middle school years, only to have her pants split open in class. After an ill-fated class project, playground bullies teach middle daughter Nhi what her parents avoid articulating about Vietnam. Pregnant Xuan enters a beauty pageant, not realizing that the competition’s shtick is to mock its contestants. The characters grapple with forces as varied as nature and imperialism, and they continually adapt and survive.
The Trung women chafe against each other in part because, even as their experiences diverge, their impulses to protect themselves and each other are similar. Trac, the oldest daughter and a successful attorney, works tirelessly to fulfill her parents’ expectations, though she hides her sexuality from her family and rejects her father’s strict plan for her life. Nhi and Trieu dutifully accept burned bagels slathered with cream cheese by their mother, then throw them in the trash when they think she isn’t looking. Xuan observes her children’s choice to distance themselves from her with regret, understanding, and the constant insight of her yearly horoscope predictions. From her couch in New Orleans, she observes Nhi strut through her onscreen reality, “competitive and ruthless and charming against these other women.” Xuan reflects: “she was Tiger, just like her mother.”
Daughters of the New Year is a wonderful read. Tran’s humor and insight into the complex motivations of her characters make each page a delight. Tran’s clever narrative decision to march into the past exposes what the Trung women have lost in the exodus from their homeland, and it also captures what common root anchors their shared strength. The narrative highlights the fractured realities of its inhabitants, delineating the things lost in translation by both language and experience. The result is a gorgeous story about stories that charts which memories transform our lives — and which versions we tell ourselves.
Daughters of the New Year
By E.M. Tran
Hanover Square Press
Published October 11, 2022