29 March 2017, at …
Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger.
28 February 2017, at Marion’s.
It was a somewhat depleted book group that met at Marion’s – Christine was at Uni, Helen and Simon off in Noosa, Charles in Tamworth, Jo was moderating several thousand speech therapists on the internet, Karen was just back from Sydney and snuffling with a nasty cold, and Mark was living it up in Lightning Ridge. However, the remaining members had a very convivial evening with lots of good discussion.
The title gives us a broad hint of the near-biblical saga to come, as a group of migrants from an unidentified place in Middle Asia search for their promised land in the west. Two separate stories are told in alternate chapters, but the reader knows that the stories and characters will collide at some point. These are the Names is a quote from Exodus 1:1 “Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob.” Throughout the book there are parallels between the Flight into Egypt and the the wanderings of the refugees, who endure incredible hardship. Other refugee stories were referenced – Charles has pointed out similarities with the Oakies from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Although not all the refugees have names, their characters are developed well, as is their deterioration as they are progressively stripped of “their possessions; their pasts; their identities and their lives”.
Also the character of Pontus Beg, the flawed Chief of Police in the parallel story – getting old, craving love and respect, a little bit corrupt (so the police can get paid at the end of the month), but not without humour – is beautifully drawn.
To quote (in bits) Simon:
The migrants have no names, except for Vitaly, and latterly the Ethiopian, who is given the name Africa by his fellow travellers. As they search for their destination, Pontus Beg searches for some meaning to his life, something other than the daily routine of running a police station in a small town, tackling petty crime, aiding and abetting the corrupt imposition of fines. The migrants start out with a strange set of rules and superstitions: they keep away from people with red hair; they are suspicious of the Ethiopian, who knows how to find food, how to deal with the hardships of the journey better than they can. Eventually, when things get too bad, he has to be killed, his head carried on the journey as a talisman. Instead of reaching the fabled west, land of riches and plenty, they wash up – finally – in Michailopol, victims of a cruel trick. This is up there with the fake lifejackets and the trains bound for “Germany”, but which pull up hours later at an internment camp.
Pontus Beg happens on the last rabbi in Michailopol, befriends him and then decides that he himself might – just – be Jewish. Is he? The rabbi, Zelman Eder, is sceptical, but by the end of the book Pontus has decided that it’s a certainty. It’s another step in his search for meaning, for something better. How wonderful, he thinks, to immerse oneself in the mikveh and wash away all of the bad things from the past, all of the deals, the corrupt acts, the wrongful arrests.
Most of the group thought that the characters of both stories were well drawn. Minor criticisms: one or two had doubts about the Rabbi; Wendy found the beginning rather slow; Simon, Helen and Judith thought the ending weak – couldn’t see the boy’s travel to Israel as either an option or a solution. Jo, however, found it a bit annoying – she didn’t like any of the characters, and “women were just in it to have sex with boring and unattractive men, and the whole Jewish thing felt like a plot device to make the metaphor of travelling across to new lands legit.” Most, though, found it an “easy read” (sorry, Howard Jacobson) and obviously a good translation.
Overall, a very positive response (see marks below), thanks to Simon for introducing us to a little-known writer, and I’m off in search of Wieringa’s other books, particularly Joe Speedboat.
Marks: Marion 6, Jane 8, Wendy 8, Judith 7, Suzanne 9, Charles 8, Karen 8, Simon 8, Helen 8, Jo 6. Average 7.6.
Tuesday, 31 January 2017: Suzanne’s
The second (or, rather, other) book in our annual Christmas / New Year double-header.
M.T. Anderson’s novels are generally aimed at the emerging adult audience. His first effort, Thirsty (1997) a was a modest story about urban vampires but by the mid-2000s he had produced the two-volume novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, set in Revolutionary-era Boston, which won a (US) National Book Award in 2006. Refreshingly, Anderson has the happy knack of exploring his subject in detail while observing the imperative of developing interest while avoiding the temptation to proselytise. That Symphony for the city of the dead was greeted enthusiastically by our book group should come as no surprise.
Essentially the book provides personal insights into a the life of Dimitri Shostakovich – an intensely private man; a man with an obsessive nature (co-ordinating the clocks in his house so that they would chime at the same time); a man with a strong sense of family and a surprising tolerance for the antics of children; a man prone to tics and strange mannerisms; and a man with a keen sense of humour and irony. The book traces the rise this Russian composer at a time when another rising star, Joseph Stalin, was clawing his way to the top of the Soviet Politburo. The book later concentrates on the WW2 siege of Leningrad by the German invasion forces and the subsequent three agonising years of bombardment and deprivation endured by the inhabitants of that city. Shostakovich’s now-famous response to this invasion was to write his Seventh Symphony which is both a record of the Wermacht’s invasion and a powerful symbol of Russian resistance. Despite the composer’s remarkable achievement, he was continually criticised and manipulated by the Stalinist and later regimes (under Khrushchev and so on) and so this is a story of survival on a number of levels.
The book group members at Suzanne’s embraced this book warmly, not least because it was beautifully written and provided excellent contextual material which enabled us to better understand the second book discussed that evening, Julian Barnes’ The noise of time. There was deep appreciation that Anderson had produced an account of a complex history which was delivered from a relatively neutral perspective. Indeed most of us felt compelled to comment that Anderson caused us to rethink our biased views about the role of the Soviet Union in World War 2 and, indeed, our ideas about the ‘Allied’ invasion of Western Europe.
Mark felt that the stories presented “were not horrific enough” meaning that Anderson risked presenting an account which lacked accuracy. There was some agreement with this point of view while others felt that the criticism was unwarranted- maintaining that the book embraced a significant body of facts but that there were limits to the extent to which Anderson could explore all of the atrocities.
The relevant scores were as follows: Jane 8; Helen 9; Mark 9; Simon 7; Judith 9; Wendy 9; Karen 9; Marion 9; Suzanne 9; Charles 8. Average: 8.5.
Tuesday, 31 January 2017: Suzanne’s
According to his bio, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his book The Sense of an Ending, and three of his other books have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur & George. Barnes is well known to members of this book group and each of us has read his books either privately or as part of our reading list.
The tricky thing about writing about Dimitri Shostakovich is that we have very little in the way of personal memoirs – apart from his music (see below). The source of the great composer’s reticence is probably that he did not wish to put his life – or the safety of his family – at risk through some careless notes. Julian Barnes understood this reticence and the reasons for it: Shostakovich’s life-long, futile as it turned out, struggle with powerful figures in Soviet Russia. Indeed Shostakovich’s developing relationship with Power forms the main narrative in the Noise of time.
The book begins with Dimitri sitting by an elevator, bags packed and lit cigarette in hand, waiting for Comrade Zakrevsky’s NKVD men to take him away to the Big House; this after he had fallen foul of the Great Helmsman following the ‘failure’ of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. From this encounter come motifs which are repeated throughout the book, including Stalin’s infamous description of the opera as “a muddle instead of music”. Indeed other Codas appear after each of the composer’s brushes with Power including: euphemisms/ aphorisms such as “when you chop wood the chips fly” (as a justification for the harm done by the regime); and the continued evolution of threats – some veiled, some not so veiled – during the times when Shostakovich was ‘criticised’ or coerced into becoming a member of the Party.
The Book Group Members were divided in their opinion of this book. There was certainly an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the author as he tried to flesh out some of the nuances. Not least of these was the author’s attempt to discuss the way in which people were silenced by the Power elite and yet managed to ‘speak’ to one another in the language of irony and even sarcasm. Indeed Shostakovich’s compositions (even the much-appreciated Seventh) are replete with musical references which are veiled challenges to authority. All this in an attempt to avoid what Shakespeare referred to as … art made tongue-tied by authority (from Sonnet 66). Some of the Group would, doubtless, agree with James Lasdum of the Guardian (Feb 22nd 2016) who enthused about:
Barnes cycling and recycling choice vignettes through memory and reflection as well as real time, to create an intimately illuminating montage of Shostakovich’s life.
Alas, others amongst us were not quite so sure and found Barnes’ approach to be a little too oblique and sometimes lacking in context (hence the importance of reading the Anderson book first). From my perspective Barnes struggled to produce a firm narrative on the life of Shostakovich but his short essays on Power are wonderfully insightful.
The relevant scores were: Jane 7; Helen 7; Mark 6; Simon 7; Judith 9; Wendy 6; Karen 7; Marion 5; Suzanne 8; Charles 7. Average: 6.9.
Thanks, once again, to Suzanne for being such a wonderful host. Especially given that it was our first meeting for the year and because the weather at the time was horrendous!
Tuesday, 29 November 2016: Marion’s
The mood of the meeting was suitably festive and the people there regrouped rather well after the comparative indifference of our previous meeting. Good food, company and a bloody good book helped enormously!
The good people is Hannah Kent’s second novel. She received much-deserved acclaim for her first book – Burial rights – with gongs including the Australian Book Industry (ABI) literary fiction award and the people’s choice in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Burial rights was also shortlisted for other awards (The Guardian first book award etc.) as well as being well-liked by members of this book group (Book 183, December 2014).
In similar vein to the first book, The good people is set in the first part of the nineteenth century amongst simple rural folk living in an isolated community – this time in a Flesk River valley near Killarney, Ireland. The plot is based upon real events and the unfolding of the story is facilitated by the author’s excellent research. Just as Agnes Magnusdottir (Burial rights) is incarcerated and ‘sent up’ to be tried for the crime of murder, so too are the main female characters in The good people: Nora Leahy and Nance Roche.
The background story is that Nora’s daughter has died but her four-year-old son (Micheal) is affected by muscle wastage and intellectual disability – probably caused by his family’s lack of access to proper nourishment (although Helen thinks maybe Tuberculosis) and adequate medical services. The care of Micheal is left to (grandmother) Nora who becomes increasingly fragile and isolated by a community convinced that the boy is a curse and will therefore cause bad fortune in the guise of crop failure and personal misfortune.
Nora is distraught when her husband dies suddenly and she eventually seeks help from a young woman, Mary Clifford, to care for the boy and help with the farm work. Ultimately convinced that Micheal is a ‘changeling’, Nora seeks help from ‘handy woman’ Nance, who pronounces the boy ‘faery’ and agrees to perform rituals designed to banish the changeling and restore the ‘real’ Micheal to his grandmother. In a risky attempt to “put the faery out of him”, Nance accidentally (?) drowns Micheal and the two women find themselves before the ‘beak’ with Mary’s testimony before them.
The author appears to have a fascination for the time-period, the plight of women, and courtroom drama. A number of additional themes are explored in this latest offering including: survival in a ‘community’ of impoverished people dependent upon monoculture (you can imagine how tough it must have been, later, in the 1850s during the potato famine); the role of superstition, healers, midwives and ‘handy women’ in the treatment of folk unable to access mainstream medical services; the role of the church in ameliorating superstition (at the risk of replacing it with another layer of superstition and dogma); and the plight of families with a disabled child. These elements are the backdrop for the exploration of something darker and more sinister: the unravelling of a community and the subsequent evaporation of fairness and compassion once fear is fuelled by ignorance and ‘folk lore’. Just as social media can be the touchstone for hysteria and misinformation in modern society, so too does idle gossip and the machinations of bullies and opportunists play a role in the diminishment of the community portrayed in The good people. Another avenue explored by Hannah Kent is the role of incompetent but insistent ‘leaders’ such as Nance Roche and Father Healy.
Essentially everyone really liked this book to a degree. With a ‘low’ score of 7- things are on the up-&-up. There was much discussion about: Irish traditions and folk-lore – and present-day remnants of these; the tolerance and intolerance exhibited by people in times of adversity; the emergence of “good neighbours” such as Peg who seem to be themselves no matter the obstacles; and the tension between Church and Paganist when the chips are down.
Not all the talk was positive. Helen and Suzanne decried the lack of political context for the book – although this sort of coverage might have turned the book into a weighty tome. There was also discussion about the stereotypical roles played by women in such matters as the care of Micheal. Ultimately, though, these were minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things and we were content, at last, to have a ‘juicy’ book – well written with a story skilfully spun and characters which were beautifully developed – to discuss.
The evening was punctuated with stories of the Irish heritage of most of us in the room. Maybe this accounted for a certain bias? In any case, the scores were as below:
Helen 8; Wendy 9; Karen 8; Marion 8; Suzanne 9; Simon 8; Jan- 8; Christine 7.5; Charles 7.5; Judith 7. Average 8.
Thanks, once again, to Marion and Roland for being such wonderful hosts. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Note from the Purple Book Authorities: There is no mention in the above report of the emergence of Half Marks. Letters will be sent …
The third book by Junot Diaz – a man born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. Junot is the author The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The book consists of nine short stories featuring the irrepressible Yunior (Junot in other words?): The sun, the moon, the stars (young man takes girlfriend to Santo Domingo in a vain attempt to salvage their relationship); Nilda (Junior covets his brother’s girlfriend); Alma (Alma learns from Junior’s diary that he has been cheating from her- again); Otravida otravez (Immigrant woman who works at a laundromat discovers evidence of her lover’s infidelity- the smell of another woman on his clothes. I’m pretty sure that she is (Junior’s father) Ramon’s lover- but I am probably wrong); Flaca (Veronica meets Junior at a college class and their relationship lasts for a couple of years until it ends- badly); The Para principle (Junior’s brother, Rafa, battles leukaemia; Junior eventually marries Rafa’s ex-girlfriend, Para; Rafa moves back into his mother’s place, having left at an earlier date, and steals her money); Invierno (set in Junior’s early days when his family is settling in the US); Miss Lora (High- school-age Junior has relationship with Miss Lora, a neighbour who eventually becomes a substitute teacher at his school); The cheater’s guide to love (Junior is caught out in his infidelities by his girlfriend who finds email evidence of many lovers- “… fifty fucking girls, Goddam”).
This is a book written from the perspective of the other; the immigrant. The short stories were enjoyed by most of the book group- who might well have found their opinions to be echoed by Sukhdev Sandhu –he of the English Tele- “Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison.”
There were many positive comments such as “(the book) provided- insights into another world; featured fabulous use of street language (“… having a girl on the end of your dick for four months” etc.); graphic insights into 3rd world USA; wonderful conversations on infidelity accompanied by lurid language; and (interestingly) that the book was “not sexist but showed the errors of sexist ways”.
There was agreement that the stand-out stories included Otravida otravez and Miss Lora- possibly because these stories featured the best-drawn characters and the standard of the descriptive writing was very good. Indeed the writing, overall, was descriptive and somewhat lacking in prose. For me, many of the characters were not all that well developed and Junior’s infidelities became less entertaining –and eventually repetitively annoying. On might observe that Junior has perfect insight into his philandering but monumentally poor judgement.
Scores were as follows- Simon- 7; Karen- 6; Christine- 7; Helen- 8; Judith- 7; Jane- 6; Charles- 4; Wendy- 8; Suzanne- 8; Marion- 8. Average- 6.9.
Thanks to Judith for being such a wonderful host in extremis. Welcome back to Mark who provided the insight of the outsider- not having read the book- a perspective which got us all thinking. Marks’ question (loosely translated)- as to whether we would be so happy with Junot’s writing/ language/ attitudes to women- if he were a Lebanese immigrant from Sydney’s Southwest- was interesting.
It took a while before we got around to talking about Lisa See’s 1995 family biography (/biographical fiction) On gold mountain, partly because few of us had read it from cover-to-cover and partly because those who had read it were less than excited about it. (Indeed a couple of us had started to read the book only to stop due to lack of interest!) Other more stimulating topics were preferred – like Marion’s recent trip to the Deep North and the US presidential elections. To be honest, though, and with all due respect to the author, we might have been a tad more animated had we held forth on the Hawaiian Tree Snail.
And so to the book. Someone-or-other from the Bloomsbury Publishing group enthused:
This sweeping chronicle of five generations of a Chinese-American family encompasses stories of adventure and heartache, racism and romance, secret marriages and sibling rivalries. On Gold Mountain is a powerful social history of two cultures meeting in a new world.
The See story saga begins in the mid-1800s as Lisa’a great-great-grandfather makes the journey to California to provide herbal remedies for Chinese workers hired to build the transcontinental railway. The story quickly moves to Great-Grandfather Fong See and his relationship with Letticie (Ticie) Pruett who assists him in business deals with American contacts and later becomes his ‘wife’ in a contractual arrangement designed to dodge laws which prevented Chinese men from marrying ‘white’ women. From this point there is a very detailed set of family stories which extend for about 450 pages of densely packed writing interspersed with some professionally taken photographs (no happy snaps for the See family). Towards the end of the book one is obliged to refer often to the family tree provided in the preface to the book to keep up with each and every new relative as the timeline extends towards the 2000s.
On gold mountain has become something of a best seller in the United States where it has become a focal point for discussions about the immigrant experience. Indeed there is: a popular travelling museum exhibit which features See family artifacts; an Opera (Gold Mountain) based on the book – with music by Nathan Wang and libretto by Lisa See; a companion book by Lisa See – Shanghai girls; and, yes, a few YouTube spinoffs including this one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bxphvFYA7k
As per the Bloomsbury blurb lots of themes are revisited in this book: Letticie as a strong woman (amongst other strong female characters – Sissee and Carolyn etc.) with business acumen who refuses to become subservient to the whims of Fong See; the racist laws of the day which denied Chinese people entry into the United States; actrocities wrought upon Chinese workers – starting with the infamous 1885 Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming; the experience of the Chinese immigrant (again with the experience of the ‘other!) and the ‘exotic’ nature of the See family and friends embodied, in particular, by Anna May Wong and Ray and Eddie See (the latter being Lisa’s grandfather).
The book is an extensive collection of one family’s stories combined with a bunch of facts which provide both context and back-story. What could possibly go wrong? Well, essentially the book was not embraced by the book group. It’s not as though we poured scorn upon the wretched thing; we either just lacked enthusiasm for it or were bored by it.
There was consensus that Lisa See’s work revealed a competent writer – but not one who could hold the reader for extended periods. Some of us were put off by the biographical fiction parts of the book. Indeed entire chapters appear to have been written on the basis of a few facts and vague family stories and recollections that have been gleaned by the author over the years. The chapter Anna May Wong Speaks from the grave (or some-such) is an example which gives cause for the reader to wonder just where the facts stop and the fiction commences. Most agreed that the book was interesting at first – but became a bit of a slog as more and more family members and ‘historical fictions’ were wheeled out in the ensuing pages. As with Sylvie Simmons’ book about the late, great Leonard Cohen from earlier in the year, On gold mountain was over-inclusive and a more-than-a-tad too long. To paraphrase Judith, and not for the first time: Could have done with a good editor.
So that was it. The group did their best to push the discussion on but eventually things ground to a halt and tea and (very good) cakes arrived as a blessing. Scores are as below.
Scores- Helen- 5; Jane- 4; Karen- 4; Charles- 6. Average: 4.8.
NB: A pressing matter which required input from the rank-&-file related to the eligibility of those who had only partially read the book to pass comment and, ultimately, to provide a score out of ten. In the end we came up with a cunning solution: henceforth known as the 50% rule which states: only those who have read more than half the book may provide a score. This rule shall henceforth be known as Rule #2, in addition to Rule #1– the whole-number score rule (e.g. a score of 6.5 must become a 6 or a 7- the reader cannot sit of the fence).
Thanks to Simon & Helen for being such wonderful hosts.
With this book Anthony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Evidently this is worth $10,000 in the hand – plus God knows what else in sales. The prize is supposed to be provided to reward “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. So, with a bit of luck, Doerr receiving a gong for a book which barely mentions America or Americans means that the criteria are being relaxed? A cynic might say, however, that this WAS an American book dressed up in European clothing.
The setting for All the light … is WW2 Europe, where the main characters are either refugees (the blind Marie Laure and her doting father) escaping Paris for the relative calm of San Malo, where brother/uncle Etienne has a large house, or reluctant troops in the Nazi war machine (Werner and his pal Frank Volkheimer) who wander peripatetically around the theatres of war searching out radio signals from ‘resistance fighters’ and other ‘enemy’ soldiers. Essentially Marie-Laure’s dad has been given the enormously valuable Sea of Flames diamond (by his employers at the Paris Museum of Natural History) which he is to smuggle to London so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the invading Nazis. There are many more characters and quite a few twists to the plot which inexorably draws Marie-Laure and Werner together at a time when San Malo is being dismantled by war and the dastardly SMajor Von Rumpol is desperately seeking the diamond. This meeting resonates particularly because, as the reader knows, Werner used to listen regularly to radio broadcasts, on various topics of wonder, performed by (uncle) Etienne from his San Malo home.
There was agreement that this was a somewhat sentimental sort of book which irked some but only mildly annoyed others. Most agreed that the book featured some well-drawn characters: especially that of Werner. Alas, other characters seemed not quite real with Marie Laure being like some romantic creation (read realism-meets-fantasy). Similarly SMajor Von Rumpel was drawn as an archetypal moustache-twirling baddie. The story lines were quite well constructed – although some found the tiny bites offered up in the endless ‘chapterettes’ got to be a bit tiresome after a while. The writing also got to be a bit stilted, even flowery, which gave the book the feel of a melodrama – or maybe one of Jules Verne’s books.
Doerr certainly knew his stuff and much of the book appears to have been well-researched. It is possible that the author was familiar with every bridge and potential obstacle to blind people in central Paris and San Malo and may well have become an expert on subjects a wide-ranging as early twentieth century locks and indoctrination methods used in the Hitler Youth. And yet there were some clangers: the characters spoke in a sort of American lingo – which was a real turn-off for some of us. Similarly Simon will never forgive the scene where Werner, Frank and company are trapped in the cellar of an ancient hotel with bits of yet-to-be-invented rebar hanging about them.
The combination of myths (Sea of Flames; Smugglers and brutish dogs on the beaches of Britany) and Jules Verne worked for some – albeit in a boys-own sort of way. There were a few plot red herrings – like the one-legged man on the train toward the end of the book- where the author had a bit of a playful ‘lend’ of us by echoing Werner’s unfortunate demise. Ultimately, though, the development and fate of characters such as Werner, uncle Etienne, the people of San Malo, and the people whom Werner had left behind in Germany kept many of us turning the pages with interest.
There was much discussion about the endless number of books about WW-2. Alas it seems that we will never quite digest the horror of that monumental series of horrors – except in the small instalments offered up in the numerous media available to us. There was also discussion about the indoctrination of young and vulnerable people into the Hitler Youth movement: doubtless the same sort of insanity that occurs in recent times with the dreaded ISIS – and other cults.
The book drew a broad range of comments from the rank-&-file. Indeed the two book group people who were not present at the meeting outlined the diversity by commenting, respectively: “… overly sentimental”- 3/10 (Christine); and “… wonderful”- 9/10 (Suzanne). Other scores were as follows: Wendy 7; Helen 6; Marion 7; Judith 5; Karen 7; Helen 6; Simon 5; Joanne 5; Jane 7; Charles 7.
Average = 6.2.
28 June 2016, Helen and Simon’s fancy new place in Big Town
Helen and Simon hosted the book group for the June discussion of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (sic). It was the first book group meeting in their new home in Islington and so was something of a house-warming. Fittingly the book drew a range of comments and quite a deal of hearty discussion.
This book, tagged as a tragi-comedy, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the ‘fiction’ category. It certainly has a number of fans and the review by Philip Caputo in the New York Times was lavish with its praise.
Essentially this book can be divided up into three bits: The first part deals with the exit of a select band of South Vietnamese troops and their families and the subsequent abandonment of others during the fall of Saigon. Here we meet three close friends: ‘The Captain’ (the book’s narrator), Bon and Man – young men with different political sensibilities who nonetheless have forged strong bonds of friendship.
The second part deals with the settlement of the refugees, including the Captain, Bon and ‘The General’ – who had fled Saigon – and the establishment of a new quasi-military force in exile in the United States. During this stage we learn that The Captain is determined to pursue his role as a ‘sleeper’ in a spy network tasked with keeping an eye on possible insurgents who may return to Vietnam to launch a counter revolution. In this part of the book The Captain participates in the making of a movie (‘The Hamlet’) which is destined to become a typically revisionist Hollywood flick despite his best efforts to infuse an Asian sensibility.
In the book’s third phase The Captain returns with a group of guerrillas, advised by the shady Claude (a CIA operative), who re-enter Vietnam under a vague pretext but are quickly captured and sent to a ‘re-education’ camp by soldiers of the Vietnamese People’s Army. In a plot twist The Captain and Bon become guests of the camp Commandant – who turns out, somewhat conveniently, to be their old friend, Man.
Most book group members liked this book. All agreed that the fall of Saigon was masterfully described and the terror of the fleeing refugees and their subsequent feelings of defeat and alienation had the ring of authenticity. Many appreciated the tension built by the author in the depiction of many traumatic scenes, each explored in increasing detail as the three sections of the book were unveiled. This included the evolving story of the ‘interrogation’ and subsequent rape of a female Vietcong operative with the full terror only being realised in the book’s extended finale in the re-education camp. There was also an appreciation of the author’s exposure of the duality of the main characters, especially The Captain. The portrayal of Claude as a master spook and agent provocateur was also seen as a highlight.
There were also accolades for the constant humour in the book: especially The Captain’s observations and comments. The behaviour of the ‘apparitions’ of the Crapulent Major and Sunny (both executed by The Captain during the book’s second phase) were particularly enjoyed. Finally there was an appreciation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ability to write with great insight about themes such: as the plight of ‘the other’ (the ‘gook’; the half-caste); the extent of The Captain’s hatred of his father; and this intense love for his mother; and the transcendence of the friendship between The Captain, Bon and Man.
And so there was much to discuss whether you liked the book or not. Of course the book had its detractors. The problem for these folk, me included, was not with the first section: all agreed that the fall of Saigon was dealt with very well indeed. Judith had problems with the author’s dense writing style (lengthy adjectival phrases included) and found his ‘overwriting’, a problem identified by a number of us, to be “all too tedious”. For others the book just banged on a bit, once the second section entered its hundredth-or-so page, with the final section rabbiting on like the drone of some unrelenting wind. For me the main problem was that Thank Nguyen’s wry comments and humour wore thin after the first section and the book became somewhat predictable. Character development was also a little underdone.
The scores were as follows:
Suzanne 7; Marian 9; Helen 8; Jane 7; Karen 6; Simon 8; Wendy 6; Judith 4; Charles 5. Average was 6.7.