The Eaves of Heaven is difficult to categorize. It's
not quite a biography, autobiography, nor memoir. "I did not
set out to write my father's biography
" the author states
in his notes at the front of the book. "I have lent his life
stories my words. The perspectives and sentiments within are
his." Although it doesn't fit the standard mould, however,
the book's format "works;" it's both effective and
affecting. The end result is an absorbing, real-life account
of Thong Van Pham's life in Vietnam during a particularly
Thong Van Pham's story is told in two parallel time lines, one relating his childhood in North Vietnam (1940 1954), the other his adulthood in the South (1956 1976). The author's approach can cause the reader a certain amount of confusion at first, as the narrative bounces back and forth between decades, making it difficult to follow. Additionally, the reader expects a book in biographical format, and at first he or she may interpret the "I" of the story as being Andrew X. Pham and the "father" as Thong. The author's notes make it clear in hindsight that Thong is the narrator, not the author, but this may not sink in for the reader for the first thirty pages or so. Indeed, at first the reader is much more aware of the book's structure than its content; but once the reader is oriented he or she stops focusing on the style, gradually becoming absorbed in Thong's experiences.
Andrew Pham remarks in the Acknowledgements that the book's genesis was a short story about the childhood games his father played in North Vietnam. It is not surprising, then, that the early chapters of the book are recollections of Thong Van Pham's parents, early playmates and experiences, and are full of joy and abundance. These short, entertaining vignettes have a less serious feel than later parts of the book. The corresponding chapters from the South are also happier and lighter, relating Thong's early career and his marriage.
The tenor of the book becomes progressively darker. Thong's life in the North is colored by an increasing awareness of the political climate. His family is caught in the middle between the Viet Minh and French factions, both of which demand complete loyalty while at the same time abusing the populace in general. The parallel time line in the South relates Thong's difficult years as a draftee in the South Vietnamese army.
As the book proceeds, more of the narrative is dedicated to Thong's adult life. He is heavily involved in the conflict (now between the North and South Vietnamese and their various international backers), and is trapped in Saigon during its fall. This part of the book is truly hair-raising and intense.
The Eaves of Heaven does presuppose knowledge of the events, players and politics that those born after the Vietnam War years may not possess. It may be helpful for the reader to peruse a summary of the conflict before beginning the book (see sidebar).
Andrew Pham's writing throughout The Eaves of Heaven is crisp and straight-forward. His descriptions are detailed, yet minimal, providing an excellent sense of time and place without embellishment. The story never bogs down or becomes dull. Readers may, in fact, find themselves wishing for more after turning the final page. This book's fast pace and involving story is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers well beyond the genre boundaries of history and biography aficionados.
About The Author
Andrew X Pham (pronounced fam) was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967. His father, Thong Van Pham, worked for the US during the Vietnam War and was imprisoned in a reeducation camp after the war by the Communists. The family arrived in California in 1977 as 'boat people'.
As a child, Andrew thought he would become a painter but eventually followed his father (a software engineer) into the same field, graduating from UCLA with a degree in aerospace engineering in 1990. After briefly working as an aircraft engineer, he realized he was unfit for cubicle work so quit his job to pursue an M.B.A. and an M.S. in Engineering. Eventually, he abandoned his studies, and, saddled with debts, tried his hand at writing for a living - working as a technical writer and editor and as a restaurant critic for a local newspaper (which he notes was a wonderful job for a starving artist!)
During this time he also bicycled through all the western United States, part of Japan and finally, most of Vietnam. The latter journey he recorded in Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, which won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.
Pham's other honors include the Whiting Writer Award, QPB Nonfiction Prize, Quality Paperback Book Prize, Guardian Shortlist Finalist, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discovery Book, a Border's Original Voices Selection and the Oregon Literature Prize. In 2009 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation 2009 Fellowship for nonfiction.
Speaking of his life to date on his website, Pham writes:
"It has been a long arduous road, filled with dark abysses, marvelous heights, gut-rotting doubts, exquisite joys, heartbreaks, memorable feasts, and long stretches of hunger. The view ahead seems to promise more of the same. But I have enjoyed the journey immensely. There is some truth in the old proverb: The rewarding path is never easy, the easy path never rewarding.
Along the way, I've held a dozen different jobs and lived in eight cities scattered across four states. I have been traveling and living abroad since 2002. In a way, I have become a painter of sort. Medium: words on paper. Subject: life as I see it.
This review was originally published in July 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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