This was technically the second book in my ‘Read the World’ challenge (I’m running magnificently behind schedule but let’s brush past that). But since the first was such a complete and utter disaster (I decided to start with my home country of India and against my better judgement read a book written by a foreigner, who of course wound up exoticising and romanticising our colonial past) I want to scrub its memory from my brain and turned instead to Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s incredible debut novel is the book I wish I’d begun my adventure with. This is the first of my two books from Vietnam – my goal was one book related to a country’s history, the other to its present so I don’t end up typecasting any one nation.
I don’t know that I can accurately describe it, and let’s face it at 9pm after a long week at work I don’t trust myself to think properly, so here’s a brief synopsis instead. I did find myself floundering a little when it came to the plot, which I found too slow. Maybe I read too many crime novels, who knows.
What it lacks in pace and sometimes in coherence, it more than makes up for by creating a world in which you become totally absorbed, a lead character you end up finding fascinating rather than rooting for necessarily, and a narrative style that I found captivating.
It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who as a Vietnamese man raised in the US carries the baggage of that dual identity and its value as an observer. The story is set in the Vietnam War, as a series of letters and diary entries to an unnamed ‘commandant’. The first few chapters describe the fall of Saigon and the narrator’s evacuation to Los Angeles, where he first works as a spy. I’ll leave it there, but if you’re looking for complex narratives and a fascinating protagonist you find yourself trying but failing to sympathise with (see what I did there), read this. Even if you aren’t, read this. It’s rare to find honestly-told and cleverly-woven stories about a country’s past as told by its own people and for that reason alone, read this.
If you aren’t convinced, this NYT review says what I wish I had the energy (and if we’re being honest, the vocabulary) to write.