Born in Saigon, Quan Barry is an award-winning poet who has published four books of poetry, including January’s “Loose Strife,” which examines violence throughout history. Barry’s first novel, “She Weeps Each Time You’re Born,” sympathetically and poetically chronicles the violent and mournful history of Vietnam, through the eyes and ears of a mystical girl named Rabbit.
If ever a novel could be said to possess a dramatic arc, this one does, but think Buddhist not Aristotelian, as the story conveys, in its structure, the idea of the wheel of life. That “life is a wheel” is not only stated explicitly several times throughout the novel, it is the title of the last chapter. The story begins with an epilogue in 2001, moves intermittently from present to future to past, and ends at about the same point as it began. And if life is a wheel, it also inescapably guarantees suffering.
Rabbit, who is endowed with the power to hear the voices of the dead, reveals that anguish and misery through the testimonies of those who died during Vietnam’s turbulent past: the US involvement in the war, the reunification of North and South, and the Soviet occupation; and even earlier during the period of French occupation until after World War II, the invasion by the Cambodians, the Chinese, and the “battle-thirsty Japanese.” Moreover, as Rabbit says, Vietnam is a “nation of people who have been dying from war for over a thousand years.”
Rabbit’s mother died in childbirth in 1972, and the book’s main action follows the young woman, and what is left of her family, as they struggle to survive the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Rabbit’s father, Tu, joined the Viet Cong and was often gone fighting in the jungle. The description of the war is violent but poetic: Ash permeates the air. Many bodies are left unburied. Some are heaped in mass graves. Trees “cried white leaves.”
After the war’s end, Tu returns, and Rabbit’s makeshift family flees across the country. Although she is still a child, Rabbit is admired, respected, and treated almost as if she were an adult.
We learn that Rabbit’s special powers came to her shortly after her birth. She had been buried for three days with her dead mother, but when Tu extracts Rabbit from the body bag and from the earth, she is cleansed with the “light of the full rabbit moon,” “the scent of honey perfuming the night.”
Rabbit speculates that her abilities “started because I had no sight. I could only hear the sound of my own heart filling the dirt, the sound like water dripping from a great height.” For her, often the sound of the dead is deafening. Possessed of this extra-empathic perception, Rabbit seems, if not a bodhisattva, at least an enlightened being.
As she grows older, her powers become so well known that people from all over the country come to her to discover the fate of family members and loved ones lost to the war. Her fame becomes so great, we learn in the opening epilogue, that the government sees her as a threat and places her under house arrest.
Barry’s poems have been published in The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, other literary magazines, and The New Yorker. Her novel of war and love possesses the poetic heft of Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Lark and Termite” and a rawness that is somehow beautiful, as in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” I can think of no other recent novel that deals with war quite as poetically and as sympathetically as this first novel.