Blog,  Book Review

Blog Tour: Dust Child

Welcome to day seven of the Dust Child blog tour. Below you will find my book review for this novel by author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. I will not be revealing any spoilers in my review.

Many thanks go to Algonquin Books letting me join this blog tour alongside so many great bloggers, as well as for giving me access to the ebook. You can find out where to get a copy of the book and information on the author at the bottom of this post.

Content Warning: war imagery including gore and descriptions of death, prostitution, sexual assault, domestic violence, war-related PTSD, racism and racist slurs/language   


In 1969, sisters Trang and Quỳnh, desperate to help their parents pay off debts, leave their rural village and become “bar girls” in Sài Gòn, drinking, flirting (and more) with American GIs in return for money. As the war moves closer to the city, the once-innocent Trang gets swept up in an irresistible romance with a young and charming American helicopter pilot. Decades later, an American veteran, Dan, returns to Việt Nam with his wife, Linda, hoping to find a way to heal from his PTSD and, unbeknownst to her, reckon with secrets from his past. 

At the same time, Phong—the son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman—embarks on a search to find both his parents and a way out of Việt Nam. Abandoned in front of an orphanage, Phong grew up being called “the dust of life,” “Black American imperialist,” and “child of the enemy,” and he dreams of a better life for himself and his family in the U.S. 

Past and present converge as these characters come together to confront decisions made during a time of war—decisions that force them to look deep within and find common ground across race, generation, culture, and language. Suspenseful, poetic, and perfect for readers of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s HomegoingDust Child tells an unforgettable and immersive story of how those who inherited tragedy can redefine their destinies through love, hard-earned wisdom, compassion, courage, and joy. 


Hope, self-belief and preservation, compassion, and curiosity are four pillars of this novel that are introduced very nearly at the start of the story. Through varying degrees of these broad themes, we  get to know the characters while experiencing a forty-nine-year timeline of events.

Dust Child (a term that describes the children born to an American father and Vietnamese mother during the Vietnam War; it references the “dusty” streets of some Vietnamese cities, where many of these children ended up) is a very believable work of fiction, not just with the skill Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has in writing emotions and settings, but because she considers all aspects of life for the story. Books, politics, music, and poetry are consistently woven into the lives of the characters, which not only reinforces fictional time and place, but gives the reader real-world anchors that increase the weight of character actions. Whether it’s a poem bringing light to the darkness of life, a piece of non-fiction that leads to further consideration of victims of war, or legislation affecting lives across the globe, Quế Mai is determined to give her readers as much perspective as she is able to.

The characters are dealing with all forms of trauma in both the past and “present-day” timelines—Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai uses the flashback narrative style to effectively build the tension to lead us towards the conclusion—and while some characters experience blatant “othering” by the public or family, some perpetuate harm by not owning up to their actions until they have gone too far. The obvious physical and interactive damages are hard to forget, but the internal turmoil of the characters comes across just as intensely. Sadness, anger, joy, disappointment; there doesn’t seem to be an emotion that Quế Mai cannot make her readers feel.

Furthermore, the lives of the characters are full of generational history – very specific and mostly tragic history – and the reader is gently brought along for the ride. Gentle in the way of a smooth, viewpoint narrative, though the general tone is quite somber regardless of whose point of view we are looking through. The anticipation of further heartbreak and hardship is in no way comfortable, but the discomfort is just as important in understanding the gravity of the book’s subject as the hopeful moments are. Some readers may crave a neatly packaged ending; fortunately for this reader, Dust Child does not fully satisfy that craving. Instead, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai leaves us with the components that started this fictional journey: curiosity, belief in others, compassion, and the hope that the healing, in whatever form, continues beyond the pages of the physical book.

In the author’s note, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai discusses her PhD research, including real-life interviews and voluntary work with Vietnamese and American people who had searched for, and in some cases found, family members shortly after the Vietnam War. And more specifically, after the passing the American Homecoming Act. She notes how she truly learned about the complexity of trauma during her research, though she was not a stranger to the discrimination faced by Amerasians in Việt Nam during the late seventies and eighties. The fictionalization of journalistic and academic research is not new, but Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has done it so well; her compassion and devotion is clear in the way she has written the emotions and dispositions of each character. It’s obvious that she cared about the characters being as realistically human as possible, and the many facets of them are clearly recognized.

Dust Child is an novel that is likely to stand the test of time. It is an excellent example of how literature can effectively supplement facts, figures, and sometimes make history more accessible. The novel not only stands strongly on its own merit, but it also opens up further possibilities for learning and exploration, especially when general education is lacking.

What purpose did it serve to teach children about hatred, to continue glorifying victory while not acknowledging the human costs on all sides?

About the Author

Born and raised in Việt Nam, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of The Mountains Sing, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, the 2021 International Book Awards, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for Fiction. She has published twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and has received some of the top literary prizes in Việt Nam. Her writing has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in major publications, including the New York Times. She has a PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. She is an advocate for the rights of disadvantaged groups in Việt Nam and has founded several scholarship programs, and she was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of twenty inspiring women of 2021.

Publication Date: March 14th, 2023
Author Links: 
Twitter | Website
Purchase Links: Indiebound | Algonquin Books




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