cover image The Sea of Trees

The Sea of Trees

Yannick Murphy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $22 (227pp) ISBN 978-0-395-85012-1

With the starkness of a pen-and-ink drawing, Murphy's first novel traces a young girl's coming of age in Indochina during the waning days of WWII. This spareness in style, however, lends a remote quality to the work that contrasts with its content. Narrator Tian, her family and her amah (nanny) are captured during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. Tian's budding adolescence is sharply curtailed by the reality of hunger, brutality and her parents' strained relationship. Serving as a translator in the prison camp and then later for money in Saigon, she earns enough to escape with her family to France while at the same time she struggles to understand the world around her and her place within it. Though there are many opportunities for narrative development, such as Tian's Chinese father's two-year disappearance and her French mother's illness from typhoid fever, events such as these are given perfunctory treatment. The novel spans more than two decades, but Tian's parents age rather than mature over time, and the author presents Tian's own life story as secondary to that of her parents. Murphy, whose previous book (Stories in Another Language) was a collection of short fiction, writes with an almost emotional numbness as she displays devastating events such as rapes and deaths. In a story that speaks of an innocence so severely disturbed, the dispassionate voice, though reflective of Tian's alienation, alienates the reader as well. (May)