A Hundred Suns

Written by Karin Tanabe
Review by Fiona Alison

Victor Lesage, a Michelin cousin through his mother, is determined to work his way into the inner circle of Michelin’s Clermont-Ferrand seat of power, but so far is only working on restaurant guides. To advance his stalled career, he and wife Jessie relocate to Indochine to oversee the rubber plantations in Cochinchine (Vietnam), a prospect never before contemplated by the Michelin family. On their first night in their new home, Jessie encounters the glamorous and alluring Marcelle de Fabry, wife of a successful financier. Immediately enchanted, she is drawn into Marcelle’s circle, which includes Khoi Nguyen, Marcelle’s long-time lover and heir to an Indochine silk fortune. The moist, sultry heat of Hanoi and indolent life of the rich fascinate Jessie as she is led into a web of deceit where she begins to question everything around her.

Taking place between September and November 1933, the past and present unfold in alternating narrations by Jessie and Marcelle, creating an intoxicating read, as Tanabe sustains a thriller-like tension from the outset. The plot is a haunting mystery, and once begun it’s hard to put down – the pace is as tightly wound as the characters.

The histories of Jessie, Marcelle, and Khoi pivotally entwine in the unsettling themes dealt with here: corruption and power, professed philosophies falling in favour of lifestyle preferences, the prejudgment of others, and lies and manipulation. Woven into this is the shameful history of the horrific mistreatment of plantation workers purely in aid of profit. Beatings, rape and torture were an accepted part of the French colonisation of Indochine: the death tolls were staggering, and the native people viewed as subhuman. Not one character emerges from this with their hands clean, and the denouement, which gives no clear picture of who is right and who isn’t, makes no judgement. Riveting, multi-layered food for thought.