Picks and Pans Review: The Sea of Trees

updated 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Yannick Murphy

This striking, surreal first novel tells the story of young Tian, the daughter of a French mother and Chinese father, who is taken prisoner when the Japanese invade Shanghai and sent to an Indochinese prison camp. In childlike prose, Tian narrates her long ordeal and bittersweet liberation, followed by her father's betrayal and her mother's breakdown.

Author of the critically praised collection Stories in Another Language, Murphy has spun a tale from her own family history and Chinese myth that gradually gathers weight and attains a vivid, harrowing beauty. Her disturbing images linger: At one point, Tian imagines the gouged-out eyes of a tortured Frenchman floating downriver, still taking in the sky; at another, the sea of trees itself, a forest beyond the camp from which Tian hopes her father and Montagnard tribesmen will come to rescue her, but also the place where the Japanese rape and kill—in short, a precinct of hope and fear and of haunting imagination. (Houghton Mifflin, $22)

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