"She Weeps Each Time You're Born" is hard to read, not because of any difficulty in the prose, which is a strange and unadorned, inspired sort of beautiful — unsurprising from a poet of Quan Barry's gifts. The novel is steeped in pain — also unsurprising, as it encompasses, in an intimate space, the sad history of Vietnam from the days of French Indochina through the tortured period of reunification, with forays into the dynastic and mythical realms. And that grim history is felt, with most of the story more conducted than told through the experience of a character who hears the dead.
Rabbit, born an orphan (yes, found on her dead "Little Mother's" body) in 1972, is immediately set in motion with an odd family of others displaced and damaged by war, among them another character touched by the book's magic — the silent Qui, who after a grotesque abortion suffered as a mere child at the hands of her grandmother copiously and endlessly produces breast milk. Which is, yes, very weird, and yet also somehow, like so much that's wrong with these stricken people, moving and lovely.
Indeed, the dark world of this novel is shot through with light — Qui's milk, her unnaturally fair skin, the blue flickering souls of the dead, the shimmering rivers and shining sea, the glimmering wings of an albino cormorant, the moonlight, the stars. On their last night together, Little Mother's lover, Tu, tells her, "we all carry this light inside us." The "fires like indigo stars twinkling on the mountainside" are "wandering ghosts." It is Rabbit's gift and misfortune to be privy to the stories of these ghosts, and through her we witness the ravages of the killing fields, the savagery of the war and the casual cruelty of those hardened by it.
Through the touch of a dying grandmother, we also see the depredations of life on the rubber plantations of World War II. Through a visitor, we learn of a massacre in My Kan and of a time no kinder in the distant imperial past. In intervals voices speak to us, in poetry and song, children's rhymes, patriotic anthems and prayer. Again and again, we hear of The Lady, the thousand-armed goddess who, when she finally and for the only time appears to Rabbit, "arranges each of her hands in the fear-not position, five hundred palms blossoming skyward, the others pointing to the earth, Her hands radiating from Her body like the brilliance of a star."
We are told that one thing Rabbit hadn't considered when walking one deathly landscape was "the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn't want told." The great beauty of Quan Barry's novel is in its transcendence of this impulse, its attention to all the stories, whose sum is not darkness but light, not death but life.
Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin novelist. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. On Twitter: @EllenAkins