Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains
by Yasuko Thanh
How can you stand up to tyranny when your own identity is in turmoil?
Vietnam is a haunted country, and Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is a haunted man. In 1908, the French rule Saigon, but uneasily; dissent whispers through the corridors of the city. Each day, more Vietnamese rebels are paraded through the streets towards the gleaming blade of the guillotine, now a permanent fixture in the main square and a gruesome warning to those who would attempt to challenge colonial rule.
It is a warning that Georges-Minh will not heed. A Vietnamese national and Paris-educated physician, he is obsessed by guilt over his material wealth and nurses a secret loathing for the French connections that have made him rich, even as they have torn his beloved country apart.
With a close-knit group of his friends calling themselves the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, Georges-Minh plots revenge on the French for the savagery they have shown to the Vietnamese. And it falls to Georges-Minh to create a poison to mix into the Christmas dinner of a garrison of French soldiers. It is an act that will send an unmistakable message to the French: Get out of Vietnam.
But the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong. Forced to flee into the deep jungles of the outer provinces, Georges-Minh must care for his infant son, manage the growing madness of his wife, and elude capture by the hill tribes and the small--but lethal--pockets of French sympathizers.
Journey Prize winner Yasuko Thanh transports us into a vivid, historical Vietnam, one that is filled with chaotic streets, teeming marketplaces, squalid opium dens, and angry ghosts that exist side by side with the living.
“Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains offers a very readable and equally savage look at colonial Vietnam. Yasuko Thanh’s writing whips up a miasma of jasmine oil and incense and opium smoke, while remaining gauzy as tulle. Which is not to say the story is frivolous. Think of a shiv as opposed to a longsword: one is showy and unwieldy, the other, subtle and devastating. Thanh spares us the weighty sentimentality and epic posturing of some historical novels, and gets right to the goods, through stirring narrative and imagery . . . Thanh’s ability to navigate such brutal territory with a steady hand makes this book a must-read.”
—Globe and Mail
"Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains will carry you away with the startling clarity of it language—you will almost forget you are reading at all. Until, that is, you are drawn up short by the uncanny sense that this book is not really about the past at all . . . that it is instead directly addressing you, the reader.”
—Johanna Skibsrud, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists
“Sweeping yet intimate, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is a novel in which not a single, haunting detail is trivial, and a devastating edginess straddles what is intoxicating, astonishing, and at once ancient and contemporary. Yasuko Thanh has rendered a richly imagined narrative of five men plotting, drinking, dreaming of poison against the fascinating backdrop of colonialism and revolution, where ghosts, superstition, love, and insanity seethe. This is a book to be savoured, thought about, and discussed — a book to be remembered.”
—Alexandra Curry, author of The Courtesan
“The universal legacies of colonialism: guilt, revenge, violence, ghosts. Yasuko Thanh captures Viet Nam's historical intrigues in story-telling that is compelling, vivid, tragic, passionate.”
—Kim Echlin, author of The Disappeared