Actually, the novel is powerful, original, and affecting debut exploring the themes of emigration, cultural identity and cultural heritage. The importance of home and family relations are emphasized as well. The narrator tells the story of six Vietnamese refuges who were forced to leave their native country in 1978. They sailed to California shores seeking better life and more opportunities. The main heroine, who remains nameless, is presented as a girl being disoriented by the myriad of sad events occurring in her life.
The girl becomes obsessed with a butterfly paperweight. The girl with her father and four uncles appear on the street. Nevertheless, the family cant get rid of war memories as the narrator says: War has no beginning and no end. It crosses oceans like a splintered boat. Actually, it is the first novel about refugees and challenges they faced when immigrating to American society. The novel is a story about America and Vietnam showing symbolically adult resignation and youthful yearning, tenacity of hopes and past loses.
The first-person narrator remains nameless, as it is mentioned above, is a Vietnamese girl who manages to escape by boat with her father and reach the shores of San Diego. Girls Ba is a house painter, and then he works as welder and gardener. When mother joins them, their family relations become filled with tensions and misunderstanding. Moreover, the father is haunted by the past as far as it is wrapped up in lost of mysterious and strange events. The narrator tells sadly that he is able to seat motionless in the dark for many hours, and his body absolutely still, his hands folded on his lap, penitent . . . straining toward things no one can see.
Girls father is also the gangster of the title. In particular, he is a former soldier in the South Vietnamese Army. After the war he was sent to re-education camp. However, in America in is a man of drunken rages, but he is never utterly defeated. His daughter says that his friends fell all around him, first during the war and then after the war, but somehow he alone managed to crawl here, on his hands and knees, to this life. The novel is rather symbolic.
For example, the mother compares the war with a bird with broken wing: War is a bird with a broken wing flying over the countryside, trailing blood and burying crops in sorrow. In such a way she presents reality of the war. As in may other stories, the ending brings explanation of the mystery. The girl is reconciled with her parents and with her past. Nevertheless, her past is presented in a startling image of fish: Out from the darkness of the sea, wave after wave of small, luminous bodies washed to shore.
I think that the novel isnt easy to follow and narrators points arent always consistent, but I was really impressed by novels liturgical effect. Nobody will remain indifferent when the narrator says: I dont know how time moves or which of our sorrows or our desires it is able to wash away. I like the way the author provides water with symbolical meanings. The narrator tells that In Vietnamese the word for water and the word for a nation, a country and a homeland are one and the same: nuoc.
Water symbolizes cultural identity and heritage uniting nation. Water is present everywhere throughout the novel progression either figuratively or literally. Water, in my opinion, is both a sign and symbol of the past and present. Water is something that separates and unites people. Water is the beginning and end of life. Immigration to America takes girls view of water away covering over the past and worsening relations with family. Water hides her community and homeland. Water is her essential self.