Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Links: Amazon|Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: I enjoyed the clever writing and fast-paced plot, but the ending got a bit surreal and a really terrible trope made me enjoy it much less.
This story is also a confession – the confession being written by the imprisoned narrator, relating his life as a double agent. Although he was evacuated to America after the Vietnam war ended, he is secretly reporting back to the communist leadership in Vietnam. He is also living a double life in other ways. As the child of a French soldier and a Vietnamese woman and as a communist who was educated in the United States, he’s never quite fit in with either world. Although he has already decided his loyalties, as he writes this story, he’s forced to come to terms with who he’s become.
I’m sorry for not having this labeled earlier – my review is a lot about the ending, so this does include spoilers.
I enjoyed this book as soon as I started reading because the writing was so good. On every page I wanted to save at least one sentence because it was so clever, typically in an ironic or darkly humorous way. About three-quarters of the way through, this felt like a four star read to me and I knew the ending could go make all the difference.
Unfortunately, although I expected the ending to blow me away based on the good things of heard about the book, that was not the case. First, the ending got very surreal. I sometimes felt the author was trying so hard to be deep and clever, he ended up saying nothing at all. What really ruined it for me though was the big reveal of a secret the main character was keeping from the characters reading his confession and, by extension, from the reader.
His big guilty secret is that he stood by while a woman was raped. We never learn any more about her. I don’t think we even learn her name. This woman and her horrific experience are a mere plot device explaining why the main character was holding things back. I cannot express to you how sick I am of this plot device in books and in movies. It’s lazy, it’s unpleasant to read or watch, and often frames the experience of a poorly realized female character as primarily important because it motivates a man. I’m done with it, although I don’t harbor any illusion that it will disappear anytime soon.