Novels about the immigrant experience aren’t renowned for mirth — too often they are drearily po-faced or blandly sentimental; so Chinatown’s sardonic facetiousness is refreshing.

Houman Barekat, Tribune


Thuận (Đoan Ánh Thuận) was born in 1967 in Hanoi. She studied at universities in Russia and France and now lives in Paris. Chinatown is her twelfth novel. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Union Prize, the highest award in Vietnamese literature.

cover image of the book Elevator in Sài Gòn

Elevator in Sài Gòn

by Thuận

Translated by Nguyễn An Lý

A young Vietnamese woman living in Paris travels back to Saigon for her estranged mother’s funeral. Her brother had recently built a new house in Saigon, and staged a grotesquely lavish ceremony for their mother to inaugurate what was rumored to be the first elevator in a private home in the country. But shortly after the ceremony, in the middle of the night, their mother mysteriously fell down the elevator shaft, dying in an instant.

After the funeral, the daughter becomes increasingly fascinated with her family’s history, and begins to investigate and track an enigmatic figure, Paul Polotsky, who emerges from her mother’s notebook. Like an amateur sleuth, she trails Polotsky through the streets of Paris, sneaking behind him as he goes about his usual routines. Meanwhile, she also researches her mother’s past—zigzagging across France and Asia—trying to find clues to the spiraling, deepening questions her mother left behind unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable.

Still banned in Vietnam, Elevator in Sài Gòn is a thrilling novel combining elements of the detective thriller, historical romance, postcolonial ghost story, and a scathing satire of life in a communist state.

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cover image of the book Chinatown


by Thuận

Translated by Nguyễn An Lý


An abandoned package is discovered in the Paris Metro: the subway workers suspect it’s a terrorist bomb. A Vietnamese woman sitting nearby, her son asleep on her shoulder, waits and begins to reflect on her life, from her constrained childhood in communist Hanoi, to a long period of study in Leningrad during the Gorbachev period, and finally to the Parisian suburbs where she now teaches English. Through everything runs her passion for Thuy, the father of her son, a writer who lives in Saigon’s Chinatown, and who, with the shadow of the China-Vietnam border war falling darkly between them, she has not seen for eleven years.

Through her breathless, vertiginous, and deeply moving monologue from beside the subway tracks, the narrator attempts to once and for all face the past and exorcize the passion that haunts her.

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Novels about the immigrant experience aren’t renowned for mirth — too often they are drearily po-faced or blandly sentimental; so Chinatown’s sardonic facetiousness is refreshing.

Houman Barekat, Tribune

A virtuosic stream-of-consciousness mapping of the afterlives of diaspora.

The New Yorker

Like Duras, Thuận is an intensely poetic writer. She relies so heavily on repetition that Chinatown’s text often seems to have refrains, like a ghazal or villanelle would. In many writers’ hands, this strategy could be deadening, but Thuận excels at creating momentum through language, and Nguyen An Lý translates that momentum beautifully. Chinatown exerts a near-tidal pull on the reader. I swallowed it down in one gulp.

Lily Meyer, NPR

Surprising and brilliant…an astonishing work of sharp wit and profound tragedy that refuses to be flattened into a single representation.

Lamorna Ash, Times Literary Supplement

Chinatown is a breathless work of fiction that whirls through dreams and memory and places like Hanoi, Leningrad, and Paris, where the narrator (a Vietnamese immigrant) lives with her son. The book is drenched with intense longing and it has a Marguerite Durasian nouveau roman, no-nonsense kind of vibe. It made me dizzy and lovesick at once.

Shane Anderson, Spike Magazine

Thuận recreates the rich texture of the past as it exists for those severed from their origins, a layering of memories, historical eras, and personal milestones that shifts and melds.

Alice Stephens, Washington Independent

[A] delightfully prickly and defiantly inscrutable act of resistance: against simple narratives, against our aversion to what we don’t understand, and against anything soullessly practical.

Chelsea Leu, Astra

Thuận, in her English-language debut, delivers a powerful examination of a woman’s remembering and forgetting….Comprised of a single, breathless paragraph interrupted only by the occasional excerpt from I’m Yellow, her novel in progress about a man who leaves his family, Thuận’s tightly coiled narrative paints a portrait of a woman desperately trying to make sense of her past (“You must forget in order to live,” she claims). As the woman’s thoughts spin round and round, Thuận draws the reader ever closer to the question at the core of the novel: Is it actually possible to forget in order to live? This heralds a remarkable new voice.

Publishers Weekly (Starred)
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