Love Like Hate
Having left the history of the Vietnam War in the classrooms of my London secondary school six years ago, I delighted in reading the new novel by Vietnamese American author Linh Dinh. Predominantly set in post-war Vietnam, Love Like Hate weaves fact with fiction, giving an historical background to character development.
The novel focuses on the life of rigid and successful entrepreneur Kim Lan, whose popular bar, Paris by Night, sits neatly in “Thanh Dah, north of downtown, by a leafy stretch of the Saigon river.” The reader sees into the thoughts of the protagonist, who wants nothing more than to Americanize and marry off her beautiful daughter, Hoa, to a “Viet Kieu,” one of many Vietnamese who fled to the United States during the war. “Viet Kieu sons-in-law were so desirable that people were actually paying them to marry their daughters,” Dinh notes. Kim Lan’s fixation with the American Dream is just the beginning of the reader’s glance into an increasingly complicated mother-daughter relationship, reminiscent of the female family ties illustrated in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
Hoa, a pawn in the game of her own life, has her fate determined from the beginning, as Kim Lan believes the American way of life to be a saving grace for her innocent and malleable daughter. Other characters realize that the US is not everything Hollywood purports it to be; it is, rather, “a country of straight lines and geometric exactness where everything must be qualified: your breasts, your income, your batting average.” Unrest and disappointment with Vietnam is also prevalent in the characters’ actions.
As Vietnam deals with post-war reconstruction, the female characters cope with their tiring and unchanging status as men’s inferiors. As wives, mistresses, and daughters they fall helplessly in love or deal with their ascribed roles as homemakers, child-bearers, and sex objects. Men come and go, often heartlessly.
Dinh does evoke a degree of sympathy for some of his male characters, as some are victims of their own condition. And although not exactly original, sex defines the majority of Dinh’s male caricatures, which highlights an important and fairly depressing future for both men and women. Each male character indulges in extra-marital debauchery (either in thought or practice), a motif powerfully and disturbingly presented by Dinh. So extreme is one male character’s infidelity that his wife dies of shock and despair just moments after she gives birth to their second child.
The author also foregrounds the futility of the Vietnam War, which took so many lives. Chen, a prospective Taiwanese suitor that Hoa’s father earmarks for her, sees Vietnam as an impoverished and confused hell thanks to the contemporary penetration of American capitalism with its unrealizable goals: "He had never known there could be so much capitalist exploitation in a supposedly socialist society."
Dinh has successfully written a classical novel, beautifully painting vivid picture of his characters and their thoughts. More importantly however, he presents the reader with the challenges of a country and its people, with a particular emphasis on women, in the throes of post-war turmoil.