If I Had Two Lives
“An exploration of both memory and what might have been, that at times can be quite terrifying. If I Had Two Lives is a lyrical, exquisitely written novel that delves into ugliness in the most beautiful way.”
Many Americans likely view current day Vietnam as more of an economic revival success story, if they consider it much at all. For those old enough to remember the Vietnam war—especially veterans—Vietnam probably triggers memories and scars of that tumultuous time. If I Had Two Lives presents a different view, a firsthand account of a childhood spent in postwar Vietnam and the inner turmoil left from that damaged past.
Reminiscent of the title, the narrative in If I Had Two Lives is split into two parts. In the first half, the main character as a little girl is reunited with her mother at a Vietnamese military camp. Her mother, who appears to be held at the camp as a quasi-political prisoner, is distant and sharp with her daughter. However, she ultimately acts in her daughter’s best interests, pulling strings and arranging to send her at the age of 12 to the United States. The mother says she would meet her daughter there, but she never does.
During the years the daughter is at the camp, she turns for affection to “her soldier,” a kind officer charged with protecting her. She also becomes fast friends with another little girl in the camp, a girl whose father doesn’t care for or educate her, but, as becomes apparent, routinely abuses her. The two girls spend all their time together, plotting to run away to find the friend’s mother. They become more than friends, totally intertwined. The friend tells the main character:
“I want to be able to haunt people,’ she said and looked at me. Her facial features were contorted. ‘If I could have a super power. That’s what it would be.’ ‘That’s not a superpower at all,’ I said . . . She wasn’t listening anymore. She spun in small circles around me, pretending to be drifting. ‘I’ll haunt you. I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life,’ she whispered in my ears.”
The second part of the book is very much as if the little girl who was her friend is haunting her. This takes place in current day New York City. The main character is now a young woman struggling to find her place and to be able to resolve her lack of family and connections. She latches onto a neighbor, seeing something in him that makes her think that he could be her soldier. She falls in with a married woman who has deeply unresolved issues herself, because the woman is reminiscent of the little girl from the camp. She even agrees to be a surrogate mother for the couple. The whole experience becomes in one sense traumatic, but in another, helps bring her to resolution.
In her author’s acknowledgement, Abbigail N. Rosewood (who herself lived in Vietnam until age 12) mentions “the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past . . .” It does seem that this novel is an exploration of both memory and what might have been, that at times can be quite terrifying. If I Had Two Lives is a lyrical, exquisitely written novel that delves into ugliness in the most beautiful way.