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Banyan Moon

A Novel

by Thao Thai

Banyan Moon by Thao Thai X
Banyan Moon by Thao Thai
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  • Published:
    Jun 2023, 336 pages


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BANYAN MOON, by Thao Thai
In Thao Thai’s debut novel, “Banyan Moon,” Huong Tran, one of the story’s protagonists, confides, “After years of living with my mother, her prudishness and stingy love caging me tight, I longed desperately for something free, something that felt attached to me and no one else.” Feelings of entrapment and spite are prominent in this book, a multi-perspective family saga that chronicles the lives of three Vietnamese women from 1960s Vietnam to present-day Florida.

The novel opens with a flashback, set in 1998, when grandmother Minh, mother Huong and child Ann traipse along the beach of Florida’s Gulf Coast, noses twitching from the “red-tide-scummed ocean.” Tensions are high as Huong observes with envy the palpable closeness between her mother and her 7-year-old daughter. She struggles to reconcile the nurturing Minh in front of her with the one she remembers from her youth, an aloof single mother fleeing war-torn Vietnam. What’s more, she feels this new Minh threatens her own coveted role as mother. When it comes to caring for Ann, Minh consoles while Huong reprimands. The difference in their instincts makes Huong feel alienated — she cannot compete with Minh’s newfound forbearance.

In the present day, Ann is an illustrator living in Michigan with her wealthy, white boyfriend. Her connection to her mother remains frayed while she continues to sanctify Minh. Yearning for autonomy, she has constructed an “ill-fitting cashmere life” away from home, calling Huong only to inquire about family recipes. In a succession of brutal revelations just as she is questioning her happiness, Ann learns she is pregnant, that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and that her beloved grandmother has died. The only person she can turn to is the one she fled: Huong.So begins Ann’s journey to the Banyan House, a sprawling Gothic dwelling that lies in the swamplands of Florida, which both she and Huong have inherited after Minh’s death. Pivotal moments for both mother and daughter have transpired in this dilapidated mansion — it’s the place where both Huong and Ann were raised, where Huong decided she would leave her abusive husband, Vinh, and where calamitous secrets have been long buried.Readers will find something pleasurably atmospheric about the Banyan House. “You’re all growing strange, speaking in riddles. Soon your hair will get witchy,” Huong’s brother, Phuoc, says in one of his many attempts to take ownership of the house so he can renovate and possibly sell it.

Without their revered matriarch and mediator, Huong and Ann must contend with their fractured relationship. Perceived slights, betrayals and failings to understand each other permeate their dynamic. Their confrontations can err on the side of sentimentality, but they are often balanced by Thai’s keen insight: “The shame of motherhood is that your instincts never leave,” Huong thinks, “even as everyone decides they aren’t needed anymore.”

“Banyan Moon” is strongest when exploring the unique blend of contempt and fury that can exist between mothers and daughters. It is quietly devastating to witness Ann’s battle to forgive a guilt-ridden Huong. Thai renders these feelings with nuance and a familiarity that is sometimes difficult to bear.The story’s maneuvering through time and space provides a roundness to the Tran women, allowing readers to see aspects of, and similarities between, each character that they keep from one another. Each woman withholds truths from the rest of her family in an effort to protect them, but that impulse is also what prevents them from being there for one another.

In the wake of Minh’s death, Ann yearns to discover more about her. Rifling through the Banyan House to find remnants of her grandmother, she uncovers a secret that could break Huong’s heart. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Ann, Huong is guarding a secret of her own. We are all capable of terrible things, Minh’s mother once told her. But what if the terrible thing is also the kindest? “Banyan Moon” urges readers to consider whether it is best for some truths to remain hidden — whether deceit can ultimately be an act of love.
Pamela K. (Churchville, NY)

Banyan Moon a novel of secrets and saviors
At times, when reading this novel, Banyan Moon by Thao Thai, you think the story is primarily focused on the setting, specifically Banyan House. The home originally acquired by Minh becomes a sanctuary for not only herself but also her daughter Huong and lastly her grand daughter Ann. Chapters alternate narration among the three generations of women, each one revealing more and more details about their pasts and the complexities of their relationships.
I enjoyed reading this novel, first set in Vietnam and then in the swamplands of the Florida coast, largely due to the depth of the characters who were imperfect individuals while expansive in their interests and life choices.
Though female characters largely dominate this novel, the development of male characters should not be minimized. Thao Thai reveals the significance of male relationships in the lives of Minh, Houng and Ann without stereotype or diminishment. The blend of a compelling setting, intensive plot development and endearing dynamic characters makes this novel well worth reading and discussing with others.
Darlene B. (New Castle, PA)

The Banyan Tree and a Kumquat
"Not all stories have to be neat. Some can be messy and unfinished"

'Banyan Moon' is a fantastic debut novel by Thao Thai. A multi-generational story which spans decades , this story is told by three strong, stubborn, fiercely loyal and loving Vietnamese- American women.. Minh, Huong and Ann.

The novel begins with the death of Minh, the matriarch of the family. Minh's death sets off a crisis for the two remaining women - Huong and Ann- who return to the family homestead , the Banyan House, in the swampy wetlands of Florida. This family saga is told alternately by each of the three women and moves backward and forward through time. And what made this book even more enjoyable to me is that the reader is aware throughout the story of the women's secrets and family complexities... even when the women themselves were not always aware.

I love complicated, messy family stories which play out over decades and this novel did not disappoint. The characters were wonderfully complex... strong and loyal and even infuriatingly secretive and frustrating. The Banyan House itself was also a compelling character in this story. The house, a huge, old Gothic structure, which seemed to be falling down was also a source of strength for the women who had found shelter within its walls.

I loved everything about this novel and would highly recommend it to other readers!
Power Reviewer
Suzanne G. (Tucson, AZ)

This is a great book! I felt it could go on forever and I wouldn't mind a bit. The story is so well written the interacting characters seemed to become real and ready to tell us more secrets. Thao Thai is an author to be followed; her novel is heartwarming and written with love and loyalty to her characters. Banyan Moon has been recommended to anyone who asks what recent book I've read.
Milda S. (Warwick, NY)

Secrets Under the Banyan Moon
Banyan Moon by Thao Thai is a spellbinding story of three women: grandmother, mother and daughter, who survived the Vietnam War. They presently live together in a run-down mansion in Florida under a Banyan tree in the Everglades. A house that Grandmother Minh purchased.

Each of the women's lives have been shaped by the impact of historic, political and individual events and have underlying similarities. There is friction between the three and as we continue reading we begin to understand each women's point of view.

The writing is magical in letting us into each women's thoughts as they seek to find their way. When Grandmother dies, Ann comes back and she and her mother try to reconnect. Ann finally shares her secret with her mother, changing the course of their lives.

I recommend Banyan Moon by Thao Thai for its sensitive way of confronting multigenerational issues, the resilience of immigrants, survival instincts, and other universal themes. This is a book that will make you think about the wonder of life and all its possibilities.
Theresa P. (Arkport, NY)

Mothers and daughters
What a powerfully written story. Three generations of women, and the powerful relationships they share—sometimes strong and sometimes less.
The oldest starts the story in Vietnam, and then moves their future to Florida, where they grow through the years, in a home to the side of a banyan tree. The mother daughter relationships are so powerful, so real—sometimes so beautifully woven and other times so devastatingly fragile—that the book's power was a vital force. Love, racism, trust, abuse, strength, and weakness are threads that weave into the lives of these three women, in a compelling narrative.
A first class read, meriting a second read as a book club choice. The title and camo colors on the cover almost made me pass this read by. Glad I didn't. It was worth every page! Thank you for allowing the advance read!
Lee L. (Los Angeles, CA)

Beautifully written and poignant!
I've been reading quite a few new releases the last couple of months and while many of those I enjoyed immensely (majority have been 4 and 4.5 star reads thankfully), I had yet to come across one that I could truly categorize as a 5 star level "this book blew me away" type read (so far this year, I've rated 2 books 5 stars, but both were backlist reads). Well, heading into summer reading season, I'm happy to report that I've finally come across my first 5 star read among the plentiful 2023 new releases — Thao Thai's spectacular debut novel Banyan Moon (scheduled for publication in June).

There was so much to unpack with this book, I'm honestly not sure where to begin. Perhaps the best place to start would be what attracted me to this book in the first place — as soon as I read the premise, especially the following last paragraph, I knew that this was a book I abs had to read: Spanning decades and continents, from 1960s Vietnam to the wild swamplands of the Florida coast, Banyan Moon is a stunning and deeply moving story of mothers and daughters, the things we inherit, and the lives we choose to make out of that inheritance."

First of all, I love sweeping family sagas, but in particular, I'm drawn to stories about mother/daughter relationships. Part of the reason I gravitate toward these types of stories is because I have a complicated relationship with my own mother, so I'm constantly on the lookout for books that explore this — particularly between Asian mothers and daughters, as there are usually familiar cultural dynamics involved that inform these relationships, which can hopefully help me make sense of my own.

To be honest, reading this book was like a gut punch for me because I resonated so deeply with each of the 3 main characters — Minh (grandmother and family matriarch), Huong (Minh's daughter and Ann's mother), and Ann (Minh's granddaughter, Huong's daughter, and herself about to become a mother) — and the various misunderstandings and disagreements that defined their relationship with each other. I understood Ann's feeling of being adrift and floating and not really knowing what she wanted to do with her life, only that she wanted to escape from the perpetual tension that always existed when she was in her mother's presence. I also understood Huong's feelings of inadequacy — both as a mother and as a daughter — and feeling like she had no choice but to resign herself to a life that reflected what others wanted rather than what she actually wanted. And yes, I also understood Minh's struggle, why she became the overbearing force to be reckoned with in the family, and what necessitated her urge to protect her granddaughter at all costs. So many of the dynamics that were at play between these three women felt so familiar to me, as they reflected some of my experiences and struggles with my own family over the years: for instance: the inability to communicate our true feelings no matter how hard we try, and then being bogged down by endless guilt and regret that never truly goes away; the resentment and hurt built up from a lifetime of letting fear and desperation dictate our words and actions, resulting in us saying things to each other that we may not really mean, but that end up dealing irreparable damage to our relationships; and for me, this one was the most poignant and heartbreaking — the constant struggle with understanding the different ways to love someone and the impossibility of choosing a "right" or "wrong" way to love (especially where family is concerned). As an indication of how deeply this story resonated with me — during various points as I was reading, I actually had to set the book down in order to wipe away tears that seemed to appear of their own accord.

Another thing that blew me away with this book was the writing. I love beautiful prose and this one definitely had plenty of it! When I read fiction, I tend to read straight through without marking up any passages because I don't want to break up the flow of the story, but in this instance, I couldn't help myself — some of the passages, in articulating the complexities of the relationship between the 3 generations of Tran women, also described my own feelings so precisely that I just had to mark them for rereading and reflection later.

One other thing I wanted to mention is the format of the narrative, which, except for the first chapter, alternated between the perspectives of Minh, Huong, and Ann, both in the present day as well as going back to the past. This format was powerful, I felt, as juxtaposing the three women's stories in this way not only helped us see how each navigated her role as daughters (which is important because of how much these experiences shaped their future roles as mothers), but it also helped us to see how similar some of their motivations were, yet how differently their lives turned out based on the choices they made.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot to unpack with this one and the above only touches upon a few of my initial thoughts about certain aspects of the story that resonated with me, which of course only scratches the surface of what this book is about. This is why I'm so glad that one of my book clubs chose this as a monthly read, as I now have an excuse to go back and reread this in preparation for the discussion. Definitely looking forward to it!

Received ARC from Mariner Books via BookBrowse First Impressions program.
Power Reviewer
Betty T. (Warner Robins, GA)

Beautiful story of women coping
I often find myself drawn to multi-generational family stories. "Banyan Moon" immediately drew me right into the lives of three generations of Vietnamese women – Minh, the grandmother; Huong, the daughter; and Ann, the granddaughter.

The story opens with the death of Minh. Ann, born in the US and living in California, returns to her crumbling childhood home in Florida, a home with an old banyan tree growing at its side. Ann now must reconnect with her estranged mother. Unknown to her mother, Ann's seemingly perfect life in California is in question after she discovers she is pregnant.

Minh's narratives are set in Vietnam and follow her life as a teenager during the Vietnam War and follow her as she flees to the US in search of a better life for her children. The love between Minh and Ann was beautiful, and my heart warmed at their interactions.

"Banyan Moon" is an emotional character-driven story. The story is told in alternating perspectives of the three strong-willed women. It runs the gamut of emotions with its tale of losses, regrets, secrets, heartbreak, and, ultimately, love.

The best part of the story for me was how Ann and Huong had to re-examine their past together and realize how much they do love each other.

Thai uses beautiful imagery throughout the book, especially involving the banyan tree.

If you are a fan of Nguyen Phan Que Mai, I recommend you give this book a try.

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