The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.

Manhatten Beach by Jennifer Egan

Covering a wide range of content, Egan delivers a remarkable story with a sophisticated writing style.

3/5 stars.
ebook, 448 pages.
September 8, 2017 to September 17, 2017.

As a first-time reader of Jennifer Egan, I am grateful to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me a perfect opportunity to finally read her. Covering a wide range of content, Egan delivers a remarkable story with a sophisticated writing style.

Following the end of the Great Depression in Brooklyn, Anna is twelve years old when her father Eddie, takes her on a business venture to the wealthy home of Dexter Styles. After making a strong impression with her tomboy antics, Styles agrees to hire her father. It was then that Eddie decided to stop taking his Anna on business ventures. At home, Anna’s mother is in constant care of her younger sister, Lydia, an invalid who is bed and chair bound. Eddie’s decision to work for Styles was driven by his need to provide for his disabled child but also motivated as a way to put distance between them. Eddie loves Lydia but also sees her as his own failing. Anna is independent and strong after years of helping her mother and sister and she does not take the news well when her father informs her that she can longer come to work with him. A few years later, when Anna is only fourteen, Eddie disappears and never returns.

Jump forward to the beginning of WWII and Anna is working in the Navy docks, along with many other women to help manage the war efforts. She is headstrong and one of the few women who are unmarried. She dreams of being a diver, a position not yet open to women, and is determined to find a way to get there. One evening when her friend takes her out to one of the clubs in town that many of the soliders visits, Anna spots Dexter Styles across the bar and discovers that he is the owner. Driven by a need to know more about the disappearance of her father all those years ago, she introduces herself under a fake name. The introduction unfolds a dark story that brings up dirty secrets, desires, deceit and danger.

The history, both the setting, the working women during the war, and with Anna, her family and her diving, are what drew me into this book. Sadly, I had to draw back as the story became unfocused and convoluted with other the intertwining stories and histories. It was not that these parts of the story were not interesting or engaging is that I felt shuffled around far too often while reading this book and the ending felt messy and disjointed. For a book that had such a strong start, the ending left me with a sigh of discontent.

It is clear that this book was meticulously well researched and that a lot of effort was placed into the historical content and overall, the writing style is sophisticated and engaging but it missed the mark on the rhythm of the story.

This book has not put me off Jennifer Egan in the slightest, it actually has driven me to take a look and consider reading her highly acclaimed and award-winning novel,  A Visit From The Goon Squad. It is apparent that Egan has talent and that a novel following such a highly prized book prior is always hard to achieve.

If you have read A Visit From The Good Squad and are hoping for something of the same calibre, this book may not be what you are hoping for. However, the rich historical content is definitely worth picking this book up for. The book is due to be published on October 3, 2017.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The historical scenes in this book are outstanding.

3/5 stars.
ebook, 432 pages.
Read from January 1, 2017 to February 8, 2017.

This should have been published yesterday, my apologies. This novel showed up on my radar as it has recently won the Giller Prize and was also nominated for the Booker Prize. Once I read the premise, I was excited to see what this historical-fiction would hold.

Marie (Li-Ling) is a first-generation Canadian who is unfolding the story of two different generations of her family.  Her family, originally from China, lived through the Mao Cultural Revolutions and the following generation was there for the Tiananmen Square protests. When her estranged older cousin Ai-Ming comes to live with after escaping the aftermath of the protests in China, Marie starts to learn more about her father, Kai, and her Uncle Sparrow who is Ai-Ming’s father, through a series of notebooks. Sparrow and Kai were both accomplished musicians, with Sparrow being a genius composer.  The two of them shared an immensely close bond. Kai moved to Canada and started a family while Sparrow remained in China and gave up composing. In secret, Kai went to visit his friend and never returned after taking his own life. The notebook also details countless other family members and their tragic stories in China during these tumultuous times in history.

If the description of this novel seems convoluted, it’s because the plot line is too. The storyline jumps around a lot and it is hard to keep track of the numerous family members in the story.  There are also extensive conversations about music and composers, which I imagine would be great if you were familiar with them, but as I am not, I found parts of this novel to be extremely dry.  I felt very frustrated with this novel. On one part, the historical aspects and scenes of this story are outstanding. Thein creates some phenomenal imagery and at times I felt as I deeply immersed in the story. There are also some very memorable characters and relationships in the book but you had to wade through a family tree to get to ones that mattered. I do not feel that this story was told as well as it could have been. The notebook concept was not delivered very well and at times I felt confused and bored by what I was reading, which is a reflection of how long this novel to me. The story and concept of this novel are award-winning, however, the writing is not.

I can say that there were times I considered putting this book down, however, there are some golden scenes in this book that made up for it, the ending especially. This book is still worth reading and I would recommend it to history buffs or historical fiction fans.