Thank you to Trish for moderating All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien.
All That’s Left Unsaid is journalist Lien’s debut novel about Ky, a young Vietnamese Australian woman. She returns home to Cabramatta, a suburb in southwest Sydney, after her brother, Denny, was murdered. Set in the 90s, Ky unravels the mystery of his death against the background of the social problems pervading the community during this period.
After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese refugees gravitated to Cabramatta. With a second chance in the new country, they worked long hours to survive. Their children were often left alone in their homes to fend for themselves after school. Their parents demanded perfect children while often suffering themselves from post-traumatic stress. Seeking a different type of family, the second generation sought the company of gangs. These gangs were heavily involved in the heroin trade, which became synonymous with Cabramatta in the 1990s.
To explore these issues Lien introduces Ky Tran. She had encouraged her parents to let her younger brother Denny out to celebrate his high school graduation with friends. That night, the straight-A student is murdered inside a busy restaurant. Ky returns home for the funeral to find out that, even though there were a dozen people at the restaurant, nobody saw anything. The police are stumped.
Desperate to find out what happened and to ease her guilt Kai tracks down the witnesses to hear their stories. In her head, she has the voice of a long, lost school friend Minnie ( Minh Le). Minnie’s imagined voice is more outspoken calling out racism as Ky encounters it during her investigations. Together they give us an insight into the challenges refugees and their children faced being Asian in Caucasian Australia.
18 OBGers gathered to discuss this contemporary Australian novel. All That’s Left Unsaid is advertised as a murder mystery. We agreed that while it is not a work of great literature, it is a page-turner. Ky interviewing the members of her community, as she tried to break the code of silence around the murder, kept us engrossed. Lien threw in red herrings. Had Denny been involved with drugs, despite his straight A-student persona? No, it was Tran’s petty jealousy when Denny greeted Minnie warmly, that led to his murder. Some members felt the ending was flat. It reflected the pointlessness of gang violence.
Many members commented that the novel had more depth than a standard murder mystery. It was a sociological investigation into the experience, of first-generation migrants arriving in Australia. They had suffered great trauma in their homeland.
Lien contrasts two family lives, Ky’s and Minnie’s. Ky’s parents were largely absent as they worked long hours in low paying jobs. Her father abused alcohol as a way of coping with his PTS. However, they were present. They showed their care for their children by being very harsh on Ky and Denny. They demanded they were A-grade students at school. Her parents understood that to be Asian in a Caucasian country you had to be better than your counterparts. Even then the chances of getting a good job were stacked against you. In Minnie’s household, her parents worked equally hard but ignored her. After she was left to her own devices she gravitated to Tran’s gang as a replacement family. OBGers welcomed the insight into the immigrant experience. We discussed Minnie’s outburst that Australia, the lucky country of sun, sand and a fair go only applies to those who look and sound Caucasian. ‘’ (they tell us) We should be so grateful to be here. But they don’t tell us that the luck doesn’t extend to us. That’s the big lie.’’ We hoped that opportunities improved for second and third-generation immigrants. One member noted that a Vietnamese refugee, Dai Le had recently been elected to the federal parliament. She is the first Vietnamese person to gain such a position. We hoped her election would signal greater acceptance in the higher echelons of the Australian community for those with Asian backgrounds.
One member did not enjoy the book. She thought the characters, particularly the parents were not well-rounded. She found it difficult to find similarities in their experience to her own life. As others pointed out, we were fortunate that there are no similarities. At no stage in our lives were our job prospects hindered by background and accent.
Many members previously taught at Universities and High Schools. They recalled similar issues with children from Yugoslav, Lebanese and Chinese immigrant communities. The students became disaffected when they could not meet the educational standards demanded by their parents only to find they were handicapped in the regular job market.
One member opined how she particularly enjoys reading novels from which she can learn something new. In All That’s Left Unsaid she and we were well rewarded.