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Monday, 16 May 2016

'The Sympathiser' by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Published by Corsair,
4 February 2016.
ISBN 978-1-4721-5173-5

As in the musical Miss Saigon we begin with the escape from Saigon by American sympathisers as the city falls to the Vietcong in 1975.  However this book is in the world of huge groups waiting for planes at the airport for many hours under the threat of fire.  This is a superb evocation of the last days of Saigon and follows on by showing  the attitudes of the South Vietnamese escaping to America and setting up new lives in LA.  Our protagonist is escaping with the General and his family and entourage.

The teller of the tale is a bastard, half-Vietnamese, half-French, a captain in the South Vietnamese forces who has become a Communist sympathiser and ultimately a Communist spy.  His views on the USA are suitably jaundiced but expressed by someone with real knowledge of the American  way of life since he had studied there for 6 years.  He continues his spying activities on the exiles under a constant fear of being unmasked.

This novel is beautifully written with many insights into the life of exiles as exgenerals run liquor stores and expilots become mechanics.  Their wives, previously languid ladies (winsome lilies as the protagonist describes them) become workers and their children learn a foreign tongue far faster than their fathers.  As on fellow exile puts it " a man doesn't need balls in this country...the women all have their own.  On a visit to the Philippines our hero recognises immediately "a country with its malnourished neck under a dictator's loafer".

The search for spies by the General seems rather redundant in America but it is suggested that the General "had bolstered the Vietnamese tendency for conspiracy with the American trait of paranoia."  Though our spy admits that he had helped the General to reach this conclusion by suggesting a possible spy whom he knew was not one!

This story of the sympathiser is a literary tour de force.  The story he tells winds its way inexorably through the contradictions of his life.

I should warn that this is a novel about war and its after effects rather than a pure crime story and as such has a great deal of violence and numerous examples of torture. 
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Palmer
This is Vietnam Thanh Nguyen first novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. The Sympathizer  won the  First Novel prize from the Centre for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for  Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.

Jennifer Palmer Throughout my reading life crime fiction has been a constant interest; I really enjoyed my 15 years as an expatriate in the Far East, the Netherlands & the USA but occasionally the solace of closing my door to the outside world and sitting reading was highly therapeutic. I now lecture to adults on historical topics including Famous Historical Mysteries.

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