Saturday, September 10, 2022

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen introduces two military heroines from ancient Vietnam

Bronze Drum reveals the story of the Trưng Sisters, heroic young women living two millennia ago who have been revered as Vietnamese heroines ever since.

Daughters of a local lord in the northern village of Mê Linh in the year 36 CE, Trưng Trac and her younger sibling Trưng Nhị grow up in a palace, with guardsmen and other servants. While their loving, watchful parents have high expectations for them, they worry that neither has the right character to be a leader. Trưng Trac is serious and scholarly, overly so, while Trưng Nhị has an adventurous spirit that, combined with her stubborn will, makes her dangerously incautious.

By now, the Hán Chinese have ruled over the Việt people for three generations, forcing their Confucian beliefs upon the matriarchal Việt culture and dragging young Việt men away to fight in their wars. Forming a united resistance against the Hán seems impossible, until dramatic acts of violence against the Trưng sisters and their family inspire the pair to gather an army – formed of disparate groups of women – and channel their personal revenge into a force powerful enough to overcome the Hán.

This pulled-from-the-depths-of-history tale could have been transformed into a rip-roaring, immersive adventure. Bronze Drum, however, is not that. As the prologue emphasizes, the Trưng Sisters’ military accomplishments have been transmitted through the ages via oral tradition, and the novel respects that – maybe too much. The story reads like the recounting of an ancient legend, with much told instead of shown:

Lady Man Thiên and Lord Trưng left the courtyard, leaving a complicated knot of emotion behind in the room. The sisters felt their parents’ conflict, and took on their helplessness. Their sense of defeat was more profound for being borrowed. How could they alleviate a sorrow that originated outside of them, in their hearts of their mother and father?

As a result, the characters are kept at arms’ length. There’s still much to admire in this portrait, like the clear example of how powerful leaders are made, not born. Each woman is demonstrably flawed and makes poor decisions. Trained as sparring partners, the sisters don’t always see eye to eye, and they serve as checks on the other’s worst impulses. The dialogue is well-formed and helps counteract the narrative’s distancing effect. Nguyen gives Lady Man Thiện, the Trưng Sisters’ mother – who becomes one of their loyal generals – some of the most stirring lines:

“We must live as we wish to live; otherwise we are not Việts,” said Lady Man Thiện. “If the Han truly want to make Confucians out of us, at least they will have to fight for it.”

As a story about courageous real-life women who triumphed over oppression, if only for a too-brief period, Bronze Drum has value for today’s readers, but the occasionally stiff writing style makes it a novel that’s best approached with tempered expectations.

Bronze Drum was published by Grand Central in August; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

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