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Summary and book reviews of The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen

The Tapestries

by Kien Nguyen

The Tapestries
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2002, 320 pages
    Oct 2003, 336 pages

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Book Summary

Inspired by the true story of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam - a story of spellbinding drama, intrigue, and an unforgettable love affair.

A stunning novel set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam by the author of the beloved memoir The Unwanted.

Vietnam 1916, the Perfume River at dawn: A red-lacquered boat glides along the riverbank, guided by the rhythmic paddling of an ancient oarsman. As the sampan nears the shore, a wedding party prepares the landing site for the arrival of the intended bride. Inside the sampan's cabin, the bride waits nervously to meet the groom and his family--or she has never laid eyes on her betrothed. When she sees her husband for the first time, she is shocked to find a young boy no more than seven years old--she has been tricked into providing the family with a daughter-in-law's free labor.

More mother than wife, Ven takes care of her young husband, Dan, until the day he is forced to leave his childhood behind forever when, while hidden by the thick branches of a mango tree, he witnesses his father's brutal beheading by the village's power-hungry mayor. Dan and his family are forced to flee their ancestral home to escape the mayor's terrible rage, and it is only when Dan grows up and realizes he is in love with the one person he can never have--the mayor's own granddaughter, Tai May--that he is forced to create his own destiny.

The Tapestries is inspired by the true story of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam. After Nguyen published his memoir, The Unwanted, his brother returned to Vietnam to retrieve the tapestries still in their family's possession. When the tapestry that most mesmerized Kien as a young boy was found in ruin, he was inspired to re-imagine his grandfather's life into a living, breathing tapestry of his own--this vivid, page-turning novel, a debt of honor to the memory of his grandfather. Filled with luscious details of turn-of-the-century Vietnam, this is a story of spellbinding drama, intrigue, and an unforgettable love affair.

The book's endpapers are taken from a tapestry woven by the author's grandfather, who served as a professional embroiderer in the court of the last king of Vietnam in the early 1900s.

A Note From The Author

I remember that the walls of the living room of my childhood home were decorated with tapestries that my grandfather had embroidered. He stretched his tapestries over rectangular cases made of unfinished wood and nailed them into position. There, in the living room, I spent most of my time with my grandfather while he worked on new designs. In that methodical silence, I could hear the walls screaming — a multitude of voices, each with a different story. Among them, one tapestry caught my attention. I spent hours looking at it, and I can still remember the dirt that collected on the wrinkles of its protective plastic sheet.

The tapestry depicted a stormy river. In the middle of the violent scene of powerful waves and pounding rain, a small sampan was half-submerged in the water. At its stern sat a longhaired woman. Part of her hair was touching the water. She was bare-chested, and in her arms she held a little boy. The tip of one of her breasts was held to the baby’s lips. I remember counting the five strands of hair on the child’s head, and I even remember thinking that the woman’s toenails were too long and should be clipped. At the bow of the sampan stood her husband, in profile; he too was bare-chested, and he wore black pants that showed patches over his knees and buttocks. Grasping a long oar in his hands, he was clearly trying to navigate the small vessel through the storm.

Years later, when I was a grown man living in America, every time I thought of my grandfather, that tapestry came to my mind. I realized that he was the boatman in the storm; the woman was my grandmother, and the child was my uncle. For me, the tapestry defined my grandfather — his will, his courage, his ability to fight against nature, his desire to overcome the difficulties in life.

Sometimes memory is carefully preserved in a museum, and sometimes it lives on inside a person’s mind with no concrete form. To me, either way, it is real, and the story of my grandfather lives on in the form of my book, The Tapestries. His artwork, along with the essence of his character, lives on in harmony.

Read more from the author by clicking on the 'Interview' link at the top or bottom of this page.

The Wedding

During the winter months, the Perfume River was chilly, especially at dawn. The morning of Dan Nguyen's first wedding was no exception. While the sun was still hidden, its early rays reached from behind the Ngu Binh Mountain, stretching pale-yellow fingers over the sky. Thin clouds wafted by, and the wind whipped up whirlpools of mist. Damp tendrils drifted over the jungle of oak trees that climbed the steep mountainside and were lost against the horizon. Along the side of the river, a strip of land still lay in darkness. From afar, it looked like the back of a crocodile floating in the water. A few hundred feet away, a sampan moved slowly upstream. Both sides of the boat were painted with red resin from the lacquer tree and highlighted with gold trim in large rectangular patterns--the design reserved for weddings.

At the vessel's stern, a white-haired man with stooped shoulders sat on the floor. His gnarled hands clenched an oar, and he leaned heavily ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss the tension between duty and personal choice in The Tapestries. To what extent did the characters have control over the way they lived their lives? Discuss the role of fate in the lives of the novel's principal characters.

  2. Did you learn something new about Vietnam and its history from reading The Tapestries? Did you sense a conflict between the forces of history and the forces of modernism? Could you foresee a source of future conflicts in Vietnamese society after reading this novel?

  3. Discuss the romantic relationships in the novel - Ven and Big Con, Dan and Tai May, Dan's mother and her gardener. What was the role of loyalty in these relationships? Can you identify modern as well as traditional elements in each ...
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BookBrowse Review


Dan Nguyen's first novel (following the success of his 2001 biography The Unwanted) is an inscrutably intricate epic of family and revenge set in Vietnam during the turn of the 20th Century. The tale comes to a conclusion that isn't particularly tidy but is perfectly in keeping with the fact that this is a novel based on the author's grandfather's own life - and real life is rarely as neat as fiction. Strongly recommended.  

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

... a daringly complex and vividly imagined debut novel about a boy who fights to reclaim his family's royal legacy in Vietnam at the turn of the century... [Nguyen] proves he is at least as talented a writer of fiction as nonfiction.

Library Journal - Rebecca Stuhr

An exciting tale that takes many twists and turns before finally ending with Dan's telling his stories to his young grandson, this work is marred somewhat by its fairy-tale qualities and minimal character development.

Kirkus Reviews

A fablelike tale set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam offers intrigue, revenge, a treasure map, and undying love, in a sprawling confection from memoirist Nguyen (The Unwanted, 2000).

Author Blurb Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God and
The Tapestries is set in a Vietnam unknown to most Americans. That this strange and beautiful lost world has been brought to life for us by a storyteller of such force as Kien Nguyen is cause for celebration. A poignant and deeply satisfying novel.

Reader Reviews

Margaret Anderson

A jewel in the library
I picked this book up by chance, the cover caught my eye and then i couldnt put it down. Iy took over my mind like a vivid film and i knew the characters like neighbours. My emotions couldnt settle ...when the end came i felt there was more to be ...   Read More

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