The pace of this story is leisurely, lending to a deep analysis of unfulfilled desires and a vivid portrayal of a landscape that is as much of a character as any of the people.
The Demon Who Peddled Longing, by Khanh Ha, is a quiet, deceivingly simple book that resonates with deep truths and experience. The protagonist’s name is not revealed right away, when he embarks along a journey of seeming aimlessness. Driving his journey is the search for—and possible revenge against—whoever raped and murdered his cousin, the young girl he grew up with and loved.
Nam is a native of the Plain of Reeds in Southeast Asia and is an experienced fisherman. This skill sustains him as he follows leads south of his home in search of the criminals who took his cousin’s life. He finds himself in a variety of dangerous situations that he manages to ride out toward his ultimate goal. Along the way, he gets marooned with severe injuries and is cared for by a large woman who comes to him in the night to take his manhood, a young cemetery dweller whose fate is mixed up with his own, and the young wife of an wealthy elderly man who falls in love with him but cannot be with him.
The story is a detailed account of Nam’s solitude as he lives along the waterways of his country. In his quiet focus is a young man of reason, fairness, and patience. He doesn’t say much along the way, just the essentials. There is beautiful imagery of river flowers and open horizons as Nam drifts among them, no longer tied to a family after his cousin’s and uncle’s deaths.
Ha’s writing draws us into the expansive marshland and riverways that make up the Southeast Asian way of life. The landscape—with its waterways and oceans—is a vast presence in the novel, perhaps even another character. Upon the backdrop of nature is the ultimate search for a new way of life as Nam wanders alone without roots to ground him.
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