The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, by Dinah Jefferies, is set in and around Hanoi during the first Indochina War. At this time America was providing support to the French forces in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism, which they feared would result should the native Vietnamese population, who had the support of China and the USSR, succeed in overthrowing the colonial government.
The story starts at Nicole Duval’s eighteenth birthday party where her older sister, Sylvie, introduces her to a handsome American silk trader named Mark Jenson. He is not all he seems. Nicole and Sylvie are métisse having been born of a French father and a Vietnamese mother. Their father is a wealthy silk merchant who also holds a secretive position within the colonial government. Their mother died in childbirth.
Nicole lives in the shadow of her sister. She has inherited her mother’s Vietnamese looks and considers herself clumsy and ugly beside Sylvie’s French features and elegance. Their father, a fierce supporter of the benefits of French rule, has always favoured his elder daughter. When he transfers the running of the family business to Sylvie, giving Nicole only an abandoned shop to revitalise, she feels shunned by them both.
Nicole finds that she enjoys working in her shop, which is located in the ancient quarter of the city, and is excited by the feelings Mark is awakening within her. Then she sees her father commit a heinous act to which Mark and Sylvie appear complicit. With her new Vietnamese friends discussing the cruelties inflicted by the French in their attempts to maintain control of the country her loyalties are tested. In an attempt to find her place in this changing world she makes a difficult choice.
As with her previous two books the author takes the reader into the heart of the story’s setting with all its colour, heat, smells and tastes. However, I found this quite different in style and scope. The effects of the war on the cast of characters caused significant hardship and there is no attempt to shy away from the brutality inflicted by individuals embroiled in the conflict. Nicole and Sylvie brought to mind the sisters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. Their actions were explicable but frustrating and I struggled to empathise.
I also struggled with a few aspects of Nicole’s story: why she had a part in the play; the sudden onset of claustrophobia. I wondered how she was capable of successfully reopening and running a shop when she appeared flighty and foolish in so many other ways.
However, I wanted to know what happened next and the ongoing story flowed. There was romance but also recognition of loneliness, desire and the confusion jealousy can cause. The insurgent Tran’s expectations of what Nicole would want helped to emphasis her cultural difference, however much of an outcast she may have felt within the circle of her family and their French acquaintances. The backdrop of war allowed for an exploration of the effects of anarchy on man, how some will behave “once civilising restraints were no longer in place”. The bleakness of war was well evoked.
The denouement is nicely done and should engender sympathy for the current refugee crisis in Europe. Politics and history are complex beasts however black and white governments like to paint their propaganda. It is hard to comment further without dropping spoilers. I will simply say that the tension of the final fifty pages provided a gratifying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.