By: Kien Nguyen
(Hardcover / 336 Pages / Little, Brown & Company / ISBN: 0316285013 / $24.95)
Description: Eighteenth-century French Jesuits bring the gospel, and more, to the future kingdom of Viet Nam. Second-novelist Nguyen ('The Tapestries,' 2002; 'A Memoir: The Unwanted,' 2001) offers a Conradian tale in which three internally troubled but well-meaning idealists set off to preach the gospel to the villagers of Annan.
Verdict: In Avignon in 1771, Monsignor Pierre de Behaine, a veteran of previous Asian missions, readies a team of Jesuit priests and nuns for what appears to be a peaceful journey to the Far East. Arrogant and restive but coolly assured, he becomes intrigued with a feverish young artist, Francois Gervaise, who resists the Monsignor's attempts to force him into confession. After some pursuit across a grim, plague-ridden countryside, the Monsignor cures Gervaise of cholera and promises redemption for his emotional turmoil (in a duel, Gervaise killed a rival for the affections of a fickle serving girl, then fled his village) by bringing Gervaise into the Jesuit order. A bit later, in Paris, teenaged Henri Monange watches his father, a humble coal seller, freeze to death and, after a sexual imbroglio, abandons his mother, hoping to find his fortune by heading south to the booming town of Marseilles. There he runs into Gervaise and we find out what he persuades him to become and much, much more as the latter half of the book unfolds.
Reviewed by Melvin Baxter