A fairly short novel set in French Indochina (now Southern Vietnam) in the 1930s. It is supposedly autobiographical and is based on the author’s own experiences growing up in the region, but was written several decades later when the author was around 70. It is a romance between a young and poor 15-year-old French girl and an older, wealthy 27-year-old Chinese man who is heir to a family fortune.
The two of them met on a ferry across the Mekong delta. They became attracted to each other and develop an illicit relationship, but they know they cannot be together: it would be socially unacceptable. Their family and the broader society all assume she is just a prostitute and is attracted to the man’s money, even though privately they know this is not the case. Eventually the man is forced to break off the relationship and marry a proper Chinese girl.
Duras writes in a discontinuous, dreamlike style, where none of the characters are named; the perspective switches back and forth from first-person to third-person, so the female protagonist is sometimes referred to as “she” and sometimes as “I”. The story is told in a non-linear order with brief snapshots of life events that switches once a page or so, giving an impression of dreamily reminiscing on a distant past. The emotions of desire and longing are well conveyed though, despite the discontinuous narrative.