About the Book
An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam, from debut author Thi Bui.
This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.
I requested this graphic memoir as I read a few of them last year and wanted to make sure I read more this year. This sounded interesting so I was pleased when I was approved.
I was expecting a graphic about a family’s experience of fleeing Vietnam to America and, whilst this book is about that, it’s also about so much more. It’s about three generations of a family and how their lives have been, how one generation affects the next. It looks at how it feels to be other, to move to a different country and feel that their ways are slowly changing you to be more like them. The way Ma looks out and sees all the streets around their house are named after American Presidents and feels it’s turning her more American and on the next page talks about a school shooting – I could feel how small and scared she felt.
This book is also very much about loss – not just loss of where you’re from, your culture, but also the loss of babies and that really got to me. The way the novel opens with a baby being born and then the reader is taken back over all the babies that Thi’s parents had, including the baby that died. It’s heartbreaking.
The baby being born as the book begins is a new grandchild for Ma, and she can’t bear being in the room with her daughter as she gives birth and her reason is that it brings the pain back. At first it seemed strange that she had given birth so many times and now couldn’t help her daughter, but then it dawns on you that the pain she can’t face, and the memories coming back are the ones of loss, the heartache – not just of her babies but of her homeland, and all the things she’s lost or had to leave behind in her life.
The book still resonates with the world we live in now, the way the family moved to San Diego from Vietnam to make a life for themselves but aren’t welcomed by everyone in the port city as people are still raw from what happened during the Vietnam war. The woman feels other, outcast, different. The family struggle to fit in, to make a life in America. The children feel the frustration of their father but are too young to understand where it comes from. They can’t comprehend the disappointment of their dad’s life – the way he has come to America to make a better life and now all he worked for in Vietnam, his degree etc, are worthless and unrecognised and so he comes to feel worthless and invisible.
This graphic memoir looks at the way political changes have a direct affect on the people who love there; it really highlights how the political is made personal. It also really makes you think about the way we see a photo and are led to believe that it’s the whole story but for the people involved, the people who live in a war-torn country it doesn’t show context or the whole story.
‘I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own…’
The book is about how the pain from one generation is revisited on the next. It’s about how we have to understand what came before, what happened to our parents and grandparents to grasp how they came to be how they are. It’s about finding tolerance and peace with the bad that has been done to us.
There is a lot of heartache in this memoir. It really brings home how everyone has their own story, and how an event that may have led to the best time of your life could have been the thing that took someone else away from what made them happy. It really gives you something to think about, the way that one decision can change everything and you can’t go back. When Ma and Bo met it was the best thing that happened to him, but for Ma, it took her away from her studies and she grew to resent that. Ma fell pregnant before marriage, so circumstance dictated that she marry Bo and she duly did, but then the baby died and Ma was already trapped in this marriage.
When Thi’s family finally, after so much planning and hardship, get to leave Vietnam it is on a crowded boat in the dead of night, they had no way of knowing what awaited them on the journey or whether they’d even make it. Ma was heavily pregnant at the time. It must have been terrifying – and it really made me think of the images we see on the news now of desperate people fleeing war-torn countries – knowing they risk their lives in cramped boats but also knowing that they can’t stay in their home land another day.
It was incredibly affecting when I read about what Thi refers to as the ‘refugee reflex’. The way that in a new country there is so much to learn but the biggest lesson she learnt as a child was to know where the folder of important documents was at all times, and to make sure you grab it in the event of leaving home in any kind of an emergency. To learn that when so young and to have that reflex stay with you, it’s heartbreaking to thing of living with that fear even when you have finally reached a place of safety.
The memoir gradually brings you back to the present day, where Thi has given birth in the hospital and it leads her to reflect on her relationship with her parents. She ponders on that moment when you realise that you’re not the centre of the universe, and that you can’t keep hanging on to resentment about your parents not being who you thought they were, or who you wanted them to be. People are who they are and Thi realises that you have to be okay with that. It becomes a little existential at the end as Thi wonders at the way we’re all joined to those who came before us, and I found this incredibly moving and humbling.
The images in this novel are so striking, they really fit the story being told and add to its impact. The colour palette is very muted with just black and white with an orange wash that is used in various ways throughout. It really is beautiful to look at.
I highly recommend reading this memoir. It’s one of those books that really stays with you for a long time after reading.
I received a copy of this book from the Abrams via NetGalley one exchange for an honest review.