Book review: Anam, André Dao  

A moving account of history, memory and familial ties.

Anam is a text that moves fluidly between literary categories. It ‘converses with, borrows from, remembers and forgets many traditions’. Dao’s is a hybrid work, which braids essay and novel into an autofictive narrative that considers the ways in which the past can haunt – and hurt.

At the heart of Anam is a man in search of memory. The unnamed central protagonist is the child of Vietnamese refugees. Moving from Melbourne with his partner and young child to study at Cambridge, he is intent on tracing his turbulent family past, and the wider significance of 20th century Vietnamese history. The narrator delicately weaves oral accounts, historical fact and fragments of diasporic memory together. This forms a reclamation of history, both personal and political, which moves to examine the disruptions of colonial violence and the legacy of conflict.

The protagonist remains anonymous through the course of the novel. In so doing, Dao creates a fictive self – a character who, simultaneously, is both of and not of himself. This lends a Sebaldian quality to Anam’s narration: the reader is made aware of the slippages between reality and fiction. These grey areas function as in-between places – for both protagonist, and the reader – and open up questions about the (un)reliability of memory itself.

The central figure in the family history Dao’s alter ego excavates is his grandfather, whose presence looms over him, exerting ‘a kind of ghostly influence’. Halfway through the narrator’s project, the grandfather dies, rendering the task of uncovering the past even more intangible and slippery.

The grandfather’s death is a schism, demarking strongly the division between present and past; yet it is also emotionally transformative. As the narrator notes, ‘Perhaps our tenderness only comes out in the presence of mortality.’ It is here, too, that the protagonist understands the chasm between the emotive myth-making alive in family stories, and the strictures of written, archival histories – which, in turn, causes him to redouble his efforts to marry the two into one, seamless narrative.

This leads the narrator to ponder the mechanics of memory. ‘There is, if you believe the psychologists, both healthy and unhealthy remembering,’ he tells us. The former comes in the form of mourning, the latter, melancholy. It is melancholic remembrance that makes ghosts of lost loved ones – keeping them in the liminal state between life and death.

The question that haunts Anam is: what does it mean to be lost in the past? Does honouring history – or homing in towards that which is lost – entail a degree of forgetting the present? And how can one reconcile the need to unearth half-remembered histories, and the necessity of recognising the legacies those narratives of memory gift the future? These questions can never be fully answered. Anam’s narrator reaches towards tentative responses that leave the reader considering their own relationship with the complicated inheritances of the past.

The novel is split, for the most part, into small chapters – some no longer than a page in length. The temporal landscape Anam moves through is complex, shifting between past and present, with a constant yearning to understand what both tenses mean for the future. Moving through three sections – Michaelmas, Lent and Easter – which mirror the Cambridge terms, the novel is elegantly structured. The magnitude of the stories it comprises could make the novel feel unwieldy or overwhelming; instead, through the delicacy Dao has taken in constructing Anam, it treads lightly.

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André Dao’s Anam is a bold evocation of memory. It explores what it means to attempt to recover the past, and moves to consider how hybrid literary forms can function to unearth stories that sit on the borderlines between fact and fiction. Anam is a love letter – to what is lost, and to what is found.

Anam by André Dao
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9781761046940
Pages: 352pp
Publication Date: 2 May 2023
RRP: $32.99

Ellie Fisher is an emerging poet, reviewer, and lyric essayist. She holds Honours (First Class) in Creative Writing from The University of Western Australia. Ellie's creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Mag, Aniko Magazine, Gems Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. You can find her at @bodilyofferings on Instagram.