Book Review: All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

About the Book:

There were a dozen witnesses to Denny Tran’s brutal murder in a busy Sydney restaurant. So how come no one saw anything?

‘Just let him go.’ Those are words Ky Tran will forever regret. The words she spoke when her parents called to ask if they should let her younger brother Denny out to celebrate his high school graduation. That night in 1996, Denny – optimistic, guileless, brilliant Denny – is brutally murdered inside a busy restaurant in Cabramatta, a Sydney suburb facing violent crime, an indifferent police force, and the worst heroin epidemic in Australian history.

Returning home for the funeral, Ky learns that the police are stumped by her brother’s case: several people were at Lucky 8 restaurant when Denny died, but each of the bystanders claim to have seen nothing.

As an antidote to grief and guilt, Ky is determined to track down the witnesses herself. With each encounter, she peels away another layer of the place that shaped her and Denny, exposing the trauma and seeds of violence that were planted well before that fateful celebration dinner: by colonialism, by the war in Vietnam, and by the choices they’ve all made to survive.

Tracey Lien’s extraordinary debut is at once heart-pounding and heart-rending as it pulls apart the intricate bonds of friendship, family, culture and community that produced a devastating crime. Combining evocative family drama and gripping suspense, All That’s Left Unsaid is both a study of the effects of inherited trauma and social discrimination, and a compulsively readable literary thriller that expertly holds the reader in its grip until the final page.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia – HQ Fiction

Released 30th August 2022

My Thoughts:

This was such a brilliant and insightful novel, written with a barely suppressed anger that is both justified and understandable. Set in 1996, in a time and place that I remember quite clearly, when heroin deaths and drug related home invasions headlined the news nightly and a red-haired chip shop woman with a big mouth launched her hate filled political platform that to this day, is still shamefully going strong. All I could think while reading this novel is that we are still beating the same drum, almost thirty years on, just about a different set of refugees, and you can substitute terrorism for heroin as the justification for it. This novel made my heart ache. This review is heavy on the quotes because they speak best for what this novel is about, the tone, the subject matter, and the piercing writing style of Tracey Lien, which I loved from the outset.

‘She took the first transfer available, to a metropolitan school, in a suburb with a name that she thought sounded Italian. When the first Indo-Chinese refugees – motherless and fatherless – found one another in southwest Sydney, banded together, created their chosen family – them against the world; when they enrolled in high school without understanding a word the teachers said; when the parents who came with babies and toddlers raised them as best they could, put them in second-hand school uniforms, ordered them to work hard, to be good, to claw back the success and stability that had been torn from them; when a sixteen-year-old black-haired boy smoked a white powder off a piece of aluminium foil, then passed it to his friend, who passed it to his friend; when the police and politicians decided that a certain ethnic enclave didn’t have the DNA to be Australian, and the prime minister of the country said Vietnamese sob stories didn’t wring his withers, and the friction of fear and hate coalesced in an Italian-sounding suburb of four square kilometres, Sharon Faulkner, freshly transferred from Hay, hair bleached golden by the sun, arrived in Cabramatta.’

On the surface, this is a novel about a sister seeking answers about her brother’s murder, which was witnessed by many, yet seen by no one. The story is told from Ky’s perspective, yet chapters are also offered from the perspective of others, those who witnessed the crime, but are unwilling to divulge what they know. Some of these chapters about the witnesses were heartbreaking, offering a view into their lives, the hardship they endure daily, the racism they are subjected to, and the trauma lines that run deep throughout their families.

‘She wondered whether in tracking down the supposed “witnesses” to Denny’s death, she was subjecting them to her grief. In inflicting this much discomfort on herself, in forcing herself to find out what happened to her brother in the most excruciating way possible, was she trying to obtain absolution? She didn’t know who exactly could absolve her.’

As well as being a story about a sister seeking answers and justice for the murder of her brother, it’s a story of the experiences of Vietnamese refugees, post war trauma, displacement, and loss. It’s also a very Australian story of racism and ethnic stereotyping.

‘She knew the constable was right to a point – there was a reason Cabramatta was known as the heroin capital of Australia. But she resented that an outsider – a freckle-faced blondie with a thick drawl that suggested he wasn’t from southwest Sydney – was painting her home in the same unflattering wash that made everyone who lived there two-dimensional, hopeless, the same. Because it wasn’t like drug dealers were going door to door like the Avon lady. It wasn’t like Ky was tripping over mounds of heroin on her walk to Woolies or Red Lea. And it wasn’t like everyone’s lives revolved around drugs and gangs and crime. There was more to Cabramatta than that.’

~~~

‘Because that was the paradox of Cabramatta – it wasn’t like other crime-ridden suburbs where drugs and gangs depressed the local economy and bled the town grey. Cabramatta still had the best pho and best banh mi; noisy, colourful, crowded markets; and everywhere you looked, chatty, opinionated old women in visors whose laughs and complaints filled the air with an energetic buzz. Cabramatta proved that a town could be gorgeous and sick, comforting and dangerous, imperfect but home.’

I was reminded over and over throughout this novel that the experiences of new Australians differ vastly between those who are migrants and those who are refugees. Multi-culturalism in action; its meaning all depends on where you’re from and how you got here.

‘Stop pretending like you haven’t seen it or felt it for yourself. They’re all fair dinkum this and everyone gets a fair go that. This is the luckiest country in the world, right? The weather’s beautiful and there’s so much land and look at our beaches and everyone can get a decent-paying job and we’re so lucky to have all of that, right? But they don’t tell us that the luck doesn’t extend to us. That’s the big lie. They’ve been shoving it down our throats since we were kids. You’re a fool if you believe it. Not only are they not gonna look out for us, they’re gonna turn on us the moment they think we’re a threat. You know this. We have to look out for ourselves.’

The writing style is precise and deeply felt, the story absorbing, the social and political history of Australia confronting and sharply realised. This is not a comforting story with a happy warm ending. It’s a realistic and confronting look at Australia’s not so distant past and ever-present policies about refugees. Deeply thought provoking and emotionally charged, a must-read.

‘There is no way for me to tell her that we’ve lost so much more – more than time with our parents, more than time with each other. There is no way for me to tell her that the loss began well before we were born, that our parents had loss, and their parents had loss, and our ancestors had loss – loss of home, loss of place, loss of self, loss of life – and we were born with that loss, carried it, burdened by it, part of it.’

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

      • I find it really hard to read bitter critiques of the migrant experience that have nothing good to say for it. In my schools, we tried really, really hard to do everything we could for the children of these families, and were especially hard on racism if it occurred in the playground, (Bosnians v Croats; Greeks v Turks etc) and it’s like having it all thrown back in your face.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I don’t know about Sydney. And I don’t know about secondary schools except that they are fair game for anyone to criticise no matter what their origins, gender or ability!
        I do know that I read a memoir written by a young Yugoslav woman who just happened to write about being a pupil at the same school I was teaching at and that she was unjustifiably criticising. A lot of what she said was just not true.
        At our school in the era this book is tackling, there was hostility between Cambodians and Vietnamese (because Vietnam invaded Cambodia, bringing it into the war). It was very difficult, all these warring factions, in fact when we had to choose a language for our kids to learn, we chose Spanish, because it was the only language that nobody spoke so we couldn’t be accused of favouritism.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Particularly on behalf of our wonderful ESL teacher, when I read that the school was ‘not used to‘ teaching children for whom English was a second language.
        But, *chuckle* everyone’s got to have a trauma these days, and school is fair game because everyone’s had a bad day at school at some stage.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes…
        It warmed my heart to hear the new government talking about how valued teachers are, and to recognise that yes, teacher discontent is about the workload, and yes, at the experienced end of the pay scale it’s sometimes about the money and lack of promotion, but most importantly it’s about the lack of respect. Teachers are sick of being blamed for everything, being expected to add every new demand to the curriculum, feeling demoralised by the constant dripfeed of stories about long-held grudges for which they are not responsible, and exhausted by the lack of respect from parents and students which feeds into bad student behaviour that’s difficult to control when the parent blames the teacher for it.
        It’s the same for the people who work in aged care. Most of them are wonderful people who put up with poor pay for work that is often very challenging, but the media narrative is all about the occasional ‘bad egg’ and the whole aged care sector is demonised for it.

        Liked by 1 person

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