Posted in Reviews

Review in Quotes: All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

Just let him go. These are the words Ky Tran will forever regret. The words she spoke when her parents called to ask if they should let her younger brother Denny out to celebrate his high school graduation with friends. That night, Denny—optimistic, guileless, brilliant Denny—is brutally murdered inside a busy restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, a refugee enclave facing violent crime, an indifferent police force, and the worst heroin epidemic in Australian history.

Returning home to Cabramatta for the funeral, Ky learns that the police are stumped by Denny’s case: a dozen people were at Lucky 8 restaurant when Denny died, but each of the bystanders claim to have seen nothing.

Desperately hoping that understanding what happened might ease her suffocating guilt, Ky sets aside her grief and determines to track down the witnesses herself. With each encounter, she peels back another layer of the place that shaped her and Denny, exposing trauma and seeds of violence that were planted well before that fateful celebration dinner: by colonialism, by the war in Vietnam, and by the choices they’ve all made to survive.

“Would an explanation of why something was not done in the past make you feel better?” he said, defaulting to a line he often used on Ky’s mother whenever she re-litigated his past decisions…

This quote reflected in words a feeling I’ve had myself many times. I often tell myself this any time I find I’m dwelling on the past that can’t be changed, and it helps to let things go and move on. The message to let go and move on is strong in this whole book. Ky’s mother reflects this in a way, whose mindset is that her son is dead and knowing details about why and how isn’t going to make him not dead, so the details ultimately do not matter.

…whatever sense of satisfaction she derived from getting him to admit his faults would be swallowed by the guilt of making another person feel rotten.

Another sentiment I related to quite a lot from Ky was this one. Vindictiveness is not in my nature, and it’s for almost this exact reason. The key difference is that I’m not upset by guilt, I’m upset by cruelty. Ky’s motivation to not be cruel is based only on her guilt that results from breaking a common social contract to avoid conflict and confrontation. Does that imply that she doesn’t truly care about making the person feel rotten? It’s one of many reflections Ky has about herself and her personal identity crisis over the course of the novel.

“Nothing a reporter does is actually that hard,” he’d said, sitting on a chair turned backward, his arms on the backrest. “What sets us apart is that we’re willing to do it.”

Ky’s ability to be a reporter stems from the same place that has her walking the “Good Immigrant’s Narrow Path” that they are told is their only way to a better life, and happiness, and success. Society at large is who is telling them that, but it’s not being fulfilled. For Ky though, being told what to do by someone else is a source of comfort for its inherent promise that there will be no unknowns and the end will be worth any pain along the way.

“Listen, Lulu, don’t ever marry a handsome man. He will never listen to you. You will have no power over him. And one day he will be old! He will be old and ugly anyway! Like your dad! But who he is on the inside will not change! He will still have his head stuck up his butthole, so far up that it pops out of his neck and is a normal head again! And people will say that they don’t understand why you are complaining because your husband’s head looks like it’s in the right place, but only you will know that it is not in the right place at all! Only you will know that it went into his butthole first! Marry an ugly man, okay?”

There isn’t a heavy direct focus on romantic relationships in this novel, but this is one place they do appear. This sentiment that Lulu is told may mirror some of what Ky’s own parents would think about each other as they struggle to be together in ways even before the death of one of their children adds to their pain and burdens. Minnie’s fascination with Thien is another key romantice relationship, though I’m hesitant to peg that as romance. Minnie is more low-key obsessed with Thien. At large, most of the romantic relationships in this novel are painful, and messy, and if you asked those in them: not always worth it.

“She any good?” Barbara asked.
“She’s nice.”
“Nice doesn’t always mean good,” Barbara said. “In fact, nice is rarely ever good.”
“Right,” Sharon said. “I suppose she was nice and good.”

Ever heard that common refrain that describing someone as nice means essentially nothing, because of how bland and vague the term is? That’s a lot of this scene. Barbara serves as a foil in the story to clearly lay out some of the issues with racism that white folks in the town don’t see — or see and choose to ignore or reinforce for their own comfort. Sharon’s ultra-generic descriptors reveal a bit of the distance that is between her and her students that can never truly be crossed. It’s the same distance that requires Sharon to write phonetic spellings of their names in her notes.

…no one understood what a quality control engineer even did, and honestly, what was the point of doing something if you couldn’t brag about it?

Okay, this one just made me laugh having previously worked in quality control. xD

Wouldn’t being Australian mean that she belonged in Australia? And wasn’t belonging meant to feel better than this?

“Just because we’re not perfect doesn’t mean we’re bad!” [he] said, hot tears streaming down his face.

And of course, belonging. The bloody heart of the novel, for those both alive and dead, is the struggle to feel they have a place. From Ky’s parents who desperately hope that Australia is better than Vietnam for their children to the boy who won’t confess the bullying he faces so his parents can believe that same desperate hope. In the witnesses Ky interacts with we see this emerge from multiple perspectives, and ultimately there is no real answer for them. Belonging is inherently personal, and all of them are struggling with it to some degree.

So overall, this was a book where you get to know the community and people of Cabramatta. White teachers, Vietnamese school children, immigrant parents, bar singers, drug users: an entire mural of people and the power imbalances and dreams they all have.

Author:

Reader, traveler, photographer, and always looking to learn!

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