Some of you may have noticed that I’m attracted to novels about immigrants. The theme has an entry all to itself in my occasional Five Books I’ve Read series. I’ve lived my life in just one country which is perhaps why I’m so curious about how it might feel to leave your homeland, not always willingly. Abbigail N. Rosewood’s debut, If I Had Two Lives, tells the story of a young woman who spent her first twelve years in Vietnam until her mother’s determination to root out corruption becomes so dangerous that she sends her daughter to the United States.
In 1993, when our unnamed narrator is just three, her mother leaves in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Intent on helping to modernise her country, her mother refuses to let corruption stand in her way. When she’s seven, our narrator is brought to the camp for political prisoners where her mother lives, protected by the man her daughter calls ‘the soldier’. She makes friends with the child of a camp employee, poor in comparison with our narrator’s privilege. These two become the closest of friends, sharing adventures, even dreams, which helps to soothe the wounds inflicted by their parents, emotional and otherwise. The last time our narrator sees her friend, she’s surrounded by the flames of the sugarcane field they’ve set alight. The following day our narrator flies to the States. When we next meet her, she’s supporting herself with a string of dead-end jobs after dropping out of college. An encounter with a woman in a bar results in an immediate connection and, perhaps, a way to fill the emotional chasm she’s endured since she was a child.
Rosewood’s narrator tells her story in her own voice, exploring themes of dislocation and belonging with poignancy and immediacy. Quick to anger, her mother is so driven that she has neither the time nor emotional energy to expend on her daughter who looks for family where she can find it. When she arrives in the States, she tells whatever story she needs to belong, accepting the stereotype of the poor immigrant:
I didn’t realise then that learning a new language permanently separated you from yourself so that each version was neither a lie nor a whole truth
Rosewood’s writing has an aching poignancy, and is often lyrically poetic:
Remembrances were like slivers of glass, crystal clear until you picked them up and smudged their surface with your fingerprints
Her narrator’s story is one of loss, isolation and a yearning to belong, summed up for me in the quietly devastating line: What I learned over the years – abandonment was love’s destiny. You’ll be relieved to hear it ends on a note of hope.