I recently listened to Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại on audio, a middle-grade novel about culture clash set in Vietnam that kept me captivated.
Twelve-year old Mai has Vietnamese parents, but she was born in southern California and goes by Mia at school. Her family may be Vietnamese, but Mia is 100% California girl. She’s looking forward to spending the summer at the beach with her best friend, Montana, and working up the courage to talk to Him, the boy she secretly has a crush on. Her plans for the perfect summer are ruined when her parents tell her she must accompany her grandmother to Vietnam.
For 40 years, Mai’s grandmother has been searching for information on what happened to her beloved husband during the Vietnam War. Finally, a private detective says he has information for her, but she must come in person. Mai’s father travels to Vietnam every summer, but he’ll be busy doing pro bono surgery for kids with cleft palates, so it is up to Mai to accompany her grandmother to her home village to discover what happened to her grandfather all those years ago.
As you can imagine, Mai is not at all happy about this turn of events. She tells herself she will help her grandmother find out what happened as soon as possible, then be on the next plane back to California to recover what is left of her summer. Life in the small rural Vietnamese village is more different and strange than Mai could ever have imagined.
It is hot, humid, and very buggy in her grandmother’s village. The air is filled with weird smells, and Mai is surrounded by family she’s never met, and she can’t understand what anyone is saying. Worst of all, there is limited electricity and no internet!
Mai is sulky to begin with, thinking only of getting back to California as fast as possible. Slowly, though (very slowly!), she begins to adjust to the new culture, remembering bits of Vietnamese she learned as a child, recovering some of the closeness she used to share with her grandmother, and even getting to know some of her new-found cousins. She and her cousin even find an internet café in a nearby town. Meanwhile, Mai is getting impatient with how long the detective is taking to provide any solid information to her grandmother.
This novel is a feast for the senses, immersing the reader in life in Vietnam, both in the rural village and, later, in the big cities that Mai visits. It is absolutely spectacular on audio, with Vietnamese words and phrases sprinkled in so that it feels very authentic. But this isn’t just about the exotic setting. The mystery of what happened to Mai’s grandfather adds suspense to the story, while Mai’s adventures and growth create a believable, compelling, and sometimes funny coming-of-age story. Add to that the historical backdrop of the Vietnam War and the exotic setting, and you have a full, rich, engaging novel that is captivating from beginning to end.
NOTE: Though this novel was written for middle-grade readers, its quality and complexity will be equally enjoyed by teens and adults.