Beneath Stone and Water capture thoughtful human relations hinh anh 1The book's cover.

Unexpected danger and chaos make people weak and highly swayed. Yet the only thing that provides strength in these situations is having everyone come back to the human foundation of connecting with one another.

That theoretical thought is intriguingly captured by Tien Vo, a senior at a boarding school in the United States, Phillips Academy Andover, in her debut novel Beneath Stone and Water.

In December 2014, a tunnel collapse in Da Dang- Da Chomo Hydroelectric site in Lam Dong, Vietnam, claimed the breaking news of national press for four consecutive days. Rarely did a tunnel collapse happen, and much more rarely there were survivors trapped inside waiting to be rescued. Throughout four days of the incident, no one knew if the mission was going to be a success, but many blessings stayed on our side as the twelve trapped workers were all ultimately rescued. The sensation stayed still though, whenever people thought about the real heroes of the story, those very own twelve workers.

There have since been a lot of talks surrounding what kind of obstacles these resilient human beings went through, how they did it, and where they drew such strength from. There have also been lots of follow-up interviews and reports on the health condition and reminiscence of these workers as they settled back into their daily lives. Few people, however, got a chance to conduct first-hand interviews with these heroes right after they survived the collapse. And among them, one person had the outstanding drive and talent to sympathise with the workers’ struggles and compose all details into one, though rather short in length, succinct debut novel, Beneath Stone and Water. That person is the young author Tien Vo.

Vo’s novel is first of all, not a nonfiction account. Regarding the question as to why she did not choose this more obvious track, Ms. Vo humbly stated that as a young writer and a senior at a competitive high school, she did not have a chance to fully approach every detail of the incident to be able to recount everything with perfect accuracy, and by giving her own creative spin to the story while maintaining the plot, she was able to more freely convey her own admiration and sympathy with the situation.

Vo’s protagonist, casually called Mai, is a woman that represents the life many young ladies in central Vietnam. She gets married to Hung, a college student at that time, barely after finishing high school and soon after gives birth to a lovely boy named Tung.

Throughout her marriage, Mai meets with strong distaste from her mother-in-law, and further suffers from marital stress as Hung starts working as an engineer on construction projects faraway from home. At one point when pressure builds up, Mai decides to leave Tung in her mother’s care and go to Hung’s project site to give him a surprise visit.

Hung, in the meantime, is the lead engineer of Tunnel 7 at Dacom Hydroelectric in Lam Dong, working everyday with a team that consists of contrasting personalities but sharing a rare camaraderie. At the time of Mai’s visit, Hung leaves Tunnel 7 for his team and steps out for a meeting. In a short instant, Mai enters the tunnel, meets his team, excluding Hung, and the tunnel collapses.

Trapped in bombastic sounds, dirt, darkness, fear, and disorientation, Mai’s first job is to pull herself together and starts learning about the eight men that she meets for the first time minutes ago. They include Uncle Tri is the oldest and takes care of everyone with great composure from the very beginning, and Mai’s brother-in-law, Toan, dislikes everything about her and has a cranky personality, but takes great care of his young brother, Binh, who suffers from mild asthma.

Mai’s biggest mission, however, lies not only in dealing with the reality but also in sorting out her inner conflicts and reflections on her marriage life.

As the book is set in intriguing parallel structure, virtually each section about life inside the tunnel is followed by a section of the action-paced happenings outside, with Hung as the protagonist, the lead of the rescue team. Hung trembles with guilt as he thinks about his wife, brother-in-laws, and teammates trapped inside. Like Mai, through four days he constantly reflects on his marriage with Mai, but unlike her uncertainty, his only concern is to safely rescue her and correct the things that he has done wrong.

Vo’s book does not stem from any immaculate factual details or intense use of technical terms, but it reflects thoughtfully on the power of human-to-human relationships in dire moments.

Vo has enough sensitivity to formulate profound stories and enough linguistic control to freely explore her thoughts, and her Beneath Stone and Water is worth reading and reflected upon./.