Home > 2000, 21st Century, American Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Book Club, Nguyen Kien, Novel > The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen (2002) French title: Le Brodeur de Huê Translated by Sylvie Servan-Schreiber.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen was our Book Club read for May. Kien Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Kien Nguyen left Vietnam, spent some time in a refugee camp in the Philippines and arrived in the USA in 1986. He became a dentist and The Tapestries is based on his grandfather’s story. It’s his second novel.

The Tapestries opens on a wedding day, in the Hue citadel, in 1916. At the time, Vietnam was a French colony named Indochina. Ven is getting married to a groom she has never seen since a matchmaker organized the wedding. She is given away by her grandfather to the rich Nguyen family. She will discover that her groom, Dan, is seven years old. She’s 23 and has been chosen by her in-laws as a free nanny.

Soon after the wedding, Master Nguyen is accused of treason and hung. Ven manages to save Dan. The Judge Toan who was in charge of arresting the whole family takes the opportunity to confiscate all the Nguyen’s wealth. Their beautiful estate is ransacked and Ven and Dan will have to find a way to survive. Ven decides that the best place to hide Dan is to have him hired in the lion’s den as a servant.

We’ll follow the fate of these two ill-matched spouses, Ven’s devotion to Dan, Dan’s romance with his enemy’s daughter, his resilience and his newfound happiness in the art of embroidery.

I guess it’s supposed to be an ode to a beautiful romance, a fresco of the end of the Vietnam empire and traditional way of life, a picture of the French colonization and imperial Vietnam, before WWII and the long years of war against the French (1946-1954) and the Americans (1955-1975)

It could have been an excellent novel but for me it was a tedious read. The characterization wasn’t subtle enough. The bad were very nasty. Ven was very devoted. Dan was very good. The romance was corny and implausible, even if it’s supposed to be true since it’s based on Nguyen’s grandfather’s life. I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories where a character has to hold a grudge to honor their family. I’m with Gandhi, An Eye for an Eye will make the whole world blind. And Dan seemed to agree with that too.

Then I thought that the writing was clunky. The descriptions of the Vietnamese customs and landscapes were interesting but they showed it was a book intended for Western readers. They wouldn’t have been part of a real Vietnamese book. To make a long story short, it was a disappointment.

I find that books set in a country but written by authors who have emigrated are hard to pin down. Sometimes they are not written in the author’s native language, like Aki Shimasaki’s, Gao Xingjian’s or Peter May’s novels. I always wonder if their vision of their native country is distorted by their emigration and their new country. Do they romanticize their native country? How in touch are they with it and its current atmosphere? The Tapestries is a historical novel, how does Nguyen view the history of Vietnam and what’s the accuracy of what he describes?

I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re really looking for an easy read with a touch of exoticism but you could have that with the Calhoun series by William G Tapply.

Has anyone read it too? If yes, did you like it?

  1. June 26, 2019 at 4:01 am

    I spend a lot of time arguing that the most interesting books are where the author is writing from lived experience, so I appreciate your closing comments. Still, on the dates you cite the author must have left Vietnam as a teenager and should have some feel for the landscape, although less for pre-War traditional/French colonial society. Clunky writing is clunky writing, but part of the problem is that Americans are so insular that rest of the world has to be described to them in some detail (even if they have seen Apocalypse Now). My number one Vietnam book is The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh which is up there with All Quiet on the Western Front.


    • June 26, 2019 at 9:05 pm

      I think that the idea to describe customs and landscapes was good. I just think it wasn’t very literary or original. But maybe I expect too much.
      He left Vietnam when he was 8. I don’t know if he came back after that or if he visited the country again before writing this book.


  2. Vishy
    July 1, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! The story told in the book looks interesting, but sorry to know that the writing style isn’t good and didn’t work for you. I agree with you on writers who have emigrated – they are out-of-touch with the current situation in their original home country and they typically have a love-hate relationship with it which carries over into their work. I thought that Gao Xingjian wrote in Chinese. Does he write in French these days?


    • July 1, 2019 at 10:12 pm

      The story could have been interesting but it was too clumsy to be plausible. I still enjoyed reading about Vietnam, even if I have reservations about what I read.

      Gao Xingjian wrote plays in French.


      • Vishy
        July 1, 2019 at 11:35 pm

        Oh, sorry to know that. Glad to know that you enjoyed reading about Vietnam. Very interesting to know that Gao Xingjian wrote his plays in French! I didn’t know that!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. July 2, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    Just from the first paragraphs I thought this isn’t the type of book you seem usually to go for. Too bad this Book Club choice didn’t work for you this time. What did your fellow book clubbers think of it? Your end comment is really interesting, the question of who has “the right” to speak/write about a country, a culture, or a political/social system often comes to my mind when it comes to politics (in Hungary it’s often used by the gvt, and you can imagine what they think the correct answer is).


    • July 3, 2019 at 6:26 am

      I thought it was too romantic and the characters lacked nuances. I like romance but this was too much and the hatred and greed against Dan’s family was overdone.
      The others liked it better than me.

      I think everyone has the right to read about a country. The reader must read with intelligence and not accept what they read at face value. It’s more about being an educated reader than anything else. The issue is how to be an educated reader when you read about a country that is not yours or about a country you know nothing about.


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