Only the Heart

8 August 2016

Only the Heart is a dramatic, exciting, thought-provoking novel co-authored by Brian Caswell and David Phu An Chiem. Told by multiple narrators, Only the Heart is the journey of a family through hope and despair, war and peace, in search of a dream. The novel opens in 1986 in Sydney Australia, where the Vo family welcomes the arrival of Grandma. The picture then immediately flashes back to the 1970’s when the Vietnam Was has just ended. The Vo family escapes from their hometown on fishing boats that smuggled them through the security of the Communist government.

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The encounter with the Thai pirates cost the family Mai, mother to Linh and Phuong, sister to Minh. As they arrive illegally on the shores of Malaysia, the family is sent to Pulau Bisa where a refugee camp stood in the middle of the ocean. Then by fate or by will-power, the family is given the chance to come to Australia. Then the time shifts back to 1986 where Toan begins his acting career, while him and Linh both run into trouble with the Triple K, the notorious gang on the streets of Australia. The story is set mainly in Vietnam and Australia.

It also follows a chronological order showing a journey through time, during that time the family migrates from Rach Gia, a port city in the south of Vietnam to Sydney in Australia. The authors chose Vietnam and Australia to be the stage of their novel because David Phu An Chiem himself was a refugee from Vietnam, traveling with his family to Australia to escape the aftermath of the Vietnam War as well as escaping from the Communist government forming. Therefore this novel is also in a sense a semi-autobiography of David Phu An Chiem.

Though most actions are placed in chronological order, quite a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards were used. This is for the effect of mirroring and reflecting the past and the present, creating contrast and illustrating similarities between events. The character of Toan is rather a replica of David Phu An Chiem himself. Toan is bonded with luck right from his birth, “I was marked for good fortune, that Quan Yin had smiled on me”, he inherits his grandmother’s link with Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess. Toan was only six years old when the family left Vietnam for a better life elsewhere.

His talent and his personality of not giving up helped him on his personal journey to success. For example, when he first joined school in Australia, he knew no English at all, and was called stupid by a girl in his class. But this became Toan’s motivation to learn English as quickly as possible, because he did not want to be called stupid again. It is this belief in self that led to his later success as an actor. Linh was the younger daughter of Mai, she inherited her mother’s strong and stubborn personality. When her mother was taken away by the pirates she did not cry but instead shut herself off from the outside world.

Fortunately, her involvement with her uncle’s family has changed her though still stubborn in some way bit was improving. After being sent to the refugee camp on Pulau Bisa, the family waited to be taken by another country. When the ambassador of Australia came to Pulau Bisa and called out the names of the Vo family, despair took over the joy of hope that was supposed to be there, because Hoa was away with Phuong in Janganoon on the mainland, and the Ambassador needed to see the whole family to be present to do the paper-works.

The family was in despair because no one knew when the next time an official would come to accept them into their country if ever. This is when Minh decided not to wait for fate to help them and took the matter into his own hands. He brought the whole family on a trip to the Ambassador in Kula Lumpur, one even he was unsure of. When the ambassador accepted the family into his office, Minh told the anecdote of his father’s survival and how only will power can help and fate does nothing.

But fate of will power, the family was given the opportunity to come to Australia. This incident shows one the main themes of the novel: will-power versus belief in fate, with Minh and his father representing will-power and Toan and Grandma representing the belief in fate. The main theme of the novel is that of the self-development and growth during journeys. All the characters has grown and achieved during their course of journey; Phuong overcame the loss of her mother and became stronger as she stood up for her family when they needed her.

After the accident, which left Linh paraplegic, Linh learns that life can still be as interesting as it used to be and recognizes that her loss is minor compared to those suffered by others, such as Thanh’s ten years in jail after the War. The novel Only the Heart is a great story that provoked thoughts about one’s own journeys and developments as one is following that of Toan’s and Linh’s. The novel has successfully conveyed its message about journeys to the readers.

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