Sep 04

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

One of the best books I read in 2014 was The Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray’s Costa winning début novel.  My expectations, therefore, were a tad on the high side when I picked up her latest (and second) novel The Museum of You. And while it doesn’t deliver the same emotional punch as her first novel, The Museum of You is still a very smart, very compassionate and very well written novel.

12-year-old Clover Quinn has always struggled to get any information from her father, or her father’s friends or the delightful and hard of hearing next door neighbour about her mother, Rebecca, who died when Clover was only six weeks old.  Now on summer holidays she has decided to search through her mother’s belongings, shoved away in the spare bedroom, with the intent of creating a museum display that will start to fill in some of the gaps as to the sort of person her mother was.  As the novel alternates between Clover’s archaeological dive into her mother’s past and flashbacks to her parent’s (Bec and Darren) first meeting and early relationship a picture emerges that’s difficult and tragic and yet ultimately hopeful.

Where this novel wins – aside from Bray’s ability to write sympathetic characters that you enjoy spending time with – is how she sensitively handles the issues of mental illness and postpartum depression.  There is darkness to the novel and just like she did with The Song for Issy Bradley, Bray never cuts away from the unfolding tragedy to comfort the reader.  But she doesn’t dwell either.  The truth about what happened to Clover’s mother is something we learn gradually.  As a consequence when the truth does emerge into light it does so with a great deal of tenderness and compassion.  Her tragic death is not sensationalised.  Fingers are not pointed and blame is not apportioned.  That doesn’t mean, though, that characters, especially Darren, don’t feel a great deal of culpability for what transpired with Rebecca.  The great strength of the novel is Darren’s journey to accept his innocence through the eyes of his daughter.

This could have been a sentimental and mawkish book, but Bray’s dry sense of humour and passion for life and people sings through. I especially loved the octogenarian next door neighbour Margaret who generates a great deal of comedy in the novel, but also plays a pivotal role in how this small neighborhood of characters deal with the tragedy that, for so long, has defined them – whether directly or indirectly as in the case of Clover.

I’ve read a good chunk of the Man Booker longlisted novels for this year – reviews forthcoming – and when I compare the quiet power of The Museum of You to the dull, flaccid, uninspired entries that form the bulk of this year’s longlist I can’t help but be annoyed.  But great fiction isn’t only defined by awards recognition and whether The Museum of You picks up nominations from other literary circles is less of a concern than the fact that this is another strong novel from Carys Bray, a writer most certainly worth following.

Helen Dunmore is absolutely correct when she says, in her review for The Guardian that “Bray’s fluid, engaging style and humour mask the novel’s complexity, just as Clover’s cheerful, easy demeanour conceals the depth of her inner life.”  This is a book with layers.  Katy Goodwin-Bates also notes the novel’s subtlety and that while there is a deep sadness at the core of The Museum of You this is not a mawkish or depressing read.  In other words everyone agrees with me!  Or I more precisely I agree with them.  

 

Aug 29

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

I first became aware of Grady Hendrix when he began writing the Great Stephen King Reread column on Tor.com. He’s since followed up that with Freaky Friday, a choice selection of some of the worst offending mass market horror paperbacks that were published in the 80s. A number of which I’ve read. In both cases, Hendrix writes with great wit and charm and a clear love for the horror genre.

Given my adoration for his non-fiction you’d think I would have purchased Hendrix’s first novel “Horrorstor” (an IKEA / Zombie mashup). But with my whole recent hankering to read award nominated novels – an obsession that’s thankfully in decline – his début novel passed me by. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake with Hendrix’s second book, the wonderfully titled My Best Friend’s Exorcism.

The novel, set in the 1980s – with most of the action taking place in 1988/89 – tells the story of Abby and Gretchen the best of friends since fifth grade. Now 16 years old and attending a prestigious private school they’re closer than ever, happily fending off boys while also experimenting with drugs. On one particular night Gretchen, after taking a tab of LSD, gets lost in the local woods. When she’s found a few hours later she’s in a state of shock. Something horrible has happened to Gretchen, something that will cut through her deep friendship with Abby, something that may require the help of an exorcist.

This is a fun novel. Not laugh a minute – in fact I congratulate Hendrix on declining to drag out every 80’s cliché – but the sort of book that’s a delight to read. Hendrix has chosen the 80s not because he wants to focus on the big hair and the popularity of Phil Collins (though Genesis gets more than one mention) but because of the whole anti-drug / fear of Satan and Satanic cults phenomena that pervaded American media at the time. Dotted throughout the narrative are pamphlets and Public Service Announcements informing parents of the tell-tale signs that indicate your child is on drugs or possibly a follower of Satan. These minor interruptions to the story only reinforce the 80’s vibe and highlight how shit-scared and irrational we’ve always been about our children, especially when the hormones kick in. Hendrix also explores class and social status, an important factor given that Abby is only attending private school because she’s earned a scholarship. It means that, as her world turns upside down, she often feels powerless because she’s from the wrong side of the street.

The relationship between Abby and Gretchen is the heart and soul of the novel. Their first meeting at Abby’s birthday party, which no-one but Gretchen attends, is a beautiful bittersweet moment that sets the tone for the rest of the book. And even when things turn to shit, and my God do they ever, this relationship – or at least its significance – remains front and centre.

The title of the novel promises an exorcism and we certainly get one and while I don’t want to spoil what transpires the last third of the novel is intense and disturbing.  Satan and demon possession aside this is a fantastic novel about friendship and love. It’s the only book about demon possession that’s made me cry.

Highly recommended.

Stephanie Hunt of The Post and Courier also loved the book, noting that aside from the wackiness and gore it’s also full of truth and tenderness.  Yes.  It is.  Ken Raymond – reviewing the book for The Oklahomanalso liked the novel arguing that despite the 80s setting it has wide range appeal – Millennials and Baby Boomers. 

Aug 24

Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals by Jesse Armstrong

Well, what a disappointment that was. I blame Mike Pesca’s interview with Jesse Armstrong on The Gist which made Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals sound a shitload more interesting and funnier than it turned out to be. Armstrong is a comedy writer known for his work on shows like Peep Show, The Thick of It and Fresh Meat.  In other words a person who has written some of my favorite TV. That knowledge and the lively interview with Mike Pesca created expectations (possibly of the unrealistic variety) that were dashed against the rocks of mediocrity. Or maybe I simply didn’t get the jokes.

In the novel a group of activists head off to the former Yugoslavia during the height of the Bosnian War smitten with the idea that their theatrical production about peace will save lives in the region. Our narrator, Andrew, while somewhat knowledgeable in the conflict is really only going along so he can be closer to Penny, one of the activist and the author of the play. To ensure he gets a place on the “peace bus” Andrew has lied to the group telling them that (a) his grandfather was born in the region and (b) he can speak the language.

Andrew is as hapless and annoying as he sounds. Yes, Armstrong generates comedy from Andrew’s fear of being found out – there’s one very funny scene where he attempts to communicate with a Serbian soldier at a border crossing mostly through gibberish – but overall he’s the Woody Allen noodnik with a distinct creepy streak. He’s constantly unsure of himself and yet he’s quite happy to manipulate events so he can be closer to Penny. It’s all very off-putting and it’s not helped by the fact that the rest of the cast is so broadly characterized – the drug addled brother, the idealistic group leader, the old hippie, the in your face lesbian – that it’s hard to see any of them as real people.

Armstrong has clearly done his research and there’s a level of sensitivity and awareness in how he describes the War with its complex internal conflicts and internecine battles. But for a book that is meant to be funny, poking fun at the idealistic hippie type trying to save the world through poetry and song, Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals is horribly short on laughs.

Mike Pesca’s interview with Jesse Armstrong can be found here.  Differing tastes aside, The Gist is great – I listen to Pesca everyday.  And if you’re looking for a second opinion, Zoe Williams from The Guardian clearly liked the book a shit load more than I did.  She describes one scene – involving our hapless narrator and a land mine – as achieving ‘structural perfection’ and got a kick from Armstrong’s ‘mordant wit’ that’s sustained even when the narrative gets a bit dark and violent. 

Aug 22

When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord

The conceit that underpins this terrific coming of age novel is the idea that beginning with puberty the kids of a mid-western town “breach”, i.e. when the moon is full they go completely feral.

Lumen Fowler is late to breach. While most of her schoolmates are spending their nights clawing, biting, fucking and running nude through the town and local area, she’s locked up in her bedroom. Lumen doesn’t see this as a particular problem. Her mother – now dead – never breached and Lumen has come to terms with the idea that she will never succumb to the phases of the moon. This does put her at odds with those around her and yet she becomes a focal point for the events that will have profound effects on Lumen and those who love her.

Joshua Gaylord’s use of language is wonderful.  The prose is complex and rich while somehow being very accessible. I never felt stuck in the narrative and that’s because Lumen’s unique take on the world and the juxtapositions she observes are genuinely insightful and fresh. There are a couple of literary tics that I found annoying – this constant need to foreshadow the disaster that is to come – but overall When We Were Animals is a wonderful novel that explores what it is to struggle through adolescence, what it is to experience the sudden shift from childhood to the adult world. And at the same time it’s an exploration of family, of a daughter’s connection with her long lost mother, of a mother’s connection with her young son.  While I didn’t shed a tear reading When We Were Animals the novel does pack an emotional punch.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the themes presented in When We Were Animals  then I refer you to Karen Munro’s excellent review on Strange Horizons.  And I’m linking to this positive review by Christopher Shultz because you can never beat a good sub-heading.

Aug 19

The Glittering World by Robert Levy

Four friends, Blue, Elisa, Jason and Gabe, travel to Cape Breton Island, and specifically the beautiful Starling Cove, to sell Blue’s grandmother’s house (she having recently fallen off mortality’s perch). Blue wants to use the money to pay off the debt he owes on his New York restaurant. However, returning to Starling Cove dredges up old memories for Blue, especially that time when he was five years old and vanished into the woods. He returned two weeks later, but with the stigma attached that he might actually be a Changeling, what with the Fae, or the Other Kind, being long time residents of the forests of Starling Cove.  Blue, with his magical effect on those around him and his astonishing cooking skills does, in fact, turn out to be a replica of the real Michael Whitley (Blue’s actual name). As you can expect, this revelation is a bit of a game changer.

Not sure if you can tell but I’m a tad cynical about this novel. Not because I think the plot is silly – there’s plenty of mileage that can found in a story where our protagonist discovers he/she is not actually human – but because The Glittering World relies heavily on you being invested in Blue and his friends. And from early on I found Blue and Gabe and Jason and Elisa, with their secrets and their neuroses and their angst to be precisely the sort of people I’d unfriend on Facebook if they had an account. There are some flashes of good writing and strong imagery when Levy describes the alien nature of the “Other Kind” but ultimately I simply didn’t give a shit about what happens to Blue, or Jason’s frustration with his wife Elisa, or Elisa’s secret pregnancy and then abduction by the Other Kind (which involves her part Fae baby being ripped from her) or Gabe’s ethereal, quixotic nature. And I think I was meant too.  Ultimately I found reading Robert Levy’s début novel to be a real slog.

Mind you the cover is pretty.

If you’re looking for a second opinion, Philip K. Jason describes The Glittering World as “gorgeously frightening, astonishingly creative, and ready to be a cult classic.”  Unsurprisingly, my support is with Bird-Aine Parnell who, like me, didn’t find the character’s particularly likeable

Aug 18

Experimental Film by Gemma Files

Experimental Film by Gemma Files is a damn fine ghost story.  It’s not a genre that I particularly like – last year I read a couple of ghostly related novels that bored me senseless – but by fusing together the alchemy of cinema with Wendish mythology Files has delivered a compelling and genuinely creepy ghost story.

And it’s not just the supernatural that works.  Experimental Film also provides a mature and sometimes confronting insight into what it’s like to parent an autistic child.  This aspect of the book is braided sensitively into the overall arc and themes of the novel as Files explores the challenges a parent faces – challenges that range from communicating with your child to the ongoing doubts that they will never truly love you.  I accept that for some people these moments in the novel, raw and unfiltered, will be too difficult to read.

To top it all off, there’s a shitload of information about the Canadian Film Industry, a history that will resonate with those who know anything about how films are made in Australia or for that matter any country that isn’t America.

If I have a quibble it’s that there are moments when the protagonist, Lois, who is smart and sympathetic, is a little too self aware, a little too on the nose with pop culture references that reflect the horror she’s facing.  But I can forgive most of this given that Lois is a filmmaker and critic.

This is an excellent book and a worthy Shirley Jackson award nominee.  (And eventual winner).

If you’re looking for something a little longer than  250 words, Nina Allan’s review of Experimental Film on Strange Horizons is definitely worth the read.  Before the novel was nominated for the Shirley Jackson it was Allan’s critique that had me adding the novel to my TBR pile.

Jun 17

A hiatus

I knew it would happen at some time, in fact I thought it would earlier than now, but work and life and general laziness has caught up with me.  I genuinely admire those who blog regularly.  These days, even to write a 600 word review, I need a massive run-up before my fingers touch the keyboard.

I do love discussing literature which is why I devote nearly three hours a month chatting about it on the Writer and the Critic and the Coode Street Roundtable podcasts.  But I’m not sure, just at the moment, whether I can translate that passion for genre and non genre fiction to a weekly, or even monthly blog post.

It’s possible (probable) that I’ll find a burst of energy at some point – maybe later in the year, maybe next year – but for the moment, if I do say anything about what I’m reading it will probably be on Facebook or Goodreads and it will involve allocating a bunch of stars to the book.  There might be the odd pithy remark.

I’m still hoping to republish my Thomas Disch reviews, but that might also be delayed.  For the time being.  Keep reading.  I certainly will.

Jun 06

Week 22: Some of the nicest Spiders you’re ever likely to meet

Books Read

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Currently Reading 

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

(1)

When the Clarke Award nominees were announced Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was described on my Facebook and Twitter feeds as the generation ship book with the spiders. This evoked images – Aliens style – of a small, embattled crew protecting their cargo of human popsicles from mutant, two metre long spiders.  While the Children of Time does feature some spider on human action, it’s the philosophical ponderings and sense of wonder and discovery that make the book such a delight to read.

The plot goes something like this: The last survivors of a dead Earth are searching for a terraformed world they believe exists based on the cobbled together records of the previous Earth Empire. The Gilgamesh – a generation ship – is lucky to find one such world only to discover that it is protected by the egotistical and mad ravings of an uploaded personality, Doctor Avrana Kern, who headed the terraforming project two thousand years previously. Kern intends to safeguard her legacy, not just the sanctity of her planet but also its residents: a colony of what she believes to be uplifted primates.  Except Kern has forgotten that the primates never reached the planet. Her project was sabotaged, a first act in a war that led to the end of the Old Empire. What was dispatched to the planet before everything went tits up was a flask containing the nano-virus intended to rewrite the neural networks of these primates. But when the primates didn’t make it, the nano-virus found another subject. Spiders. Portia Labiata to be exact. Also known as the jumping spider.

Because the generation ship narrative takes hundreds of years to unfold and because spiders have short lifespans, Tchaikovsky takes his time developing spider society. In each generation there is a Portia, a Bianca and a Fabian and through their multiplicity of eyes and limbs we watch as spider society grows outward and inwards. This includes great wars against the ants (also infected by the nano-virus), a religious schism brought about by the messages spilling from Doctor Avrana Kern’s satellite and the struggles of dealing with a worldwide pandemic. And in among all this social issues emerge, especially around the roles of gender in a society where the males only purpose is to provide sperm and then be consumed as an after coitus snack. Tchaikovsky handles all this beautifully. He instills a sense of wonder, while never betraying the genetic antecedent of his sapient spiders. At the same time he argues that intelligence and imagination and the desire to progress does bring societal change, whether you have eight legs or two.

To Tchaikovsky’s credit, the parts of the novel dealing with the humans on the generation ship are only marginally less interesting. He makes the smart move of telling that story through the one perspective – Holsten Mason, a classicist who has spent his life translating the texts left by the Old Empire. Mason plays a critical role in interpreting the ravings of Doctor Kern when the Gilgamesh reaches her satellite and the bountiful world it orbits. The novel is divided into eight sections and one of the running gags is having Mason wake up to discover that a generation or two have whizzed by and the ship is either facing a mutiny, been taken over by a group of religious zealots or is under threat from the megalomaniacal desires of the Gilgamesh’s captain. The bits involving the mutiny and the religious zealots seem par for the course for a generation ship novel. But because it’s told through Holsten’s sympathetic eyes these sections aren’t as predictable or dull as might otherwise be the case.

More than that, Holsten’s story (or adventure) on the generation ship brings home the key theme of the book, the idea of imitatio dei – the desire to imitate God. In the case of the spiders, God is the satellite that orbits their planet and this almost heretical urge to communicate with that object. For the humans, that imitation is chasing after the technology and ideologies left by the Old Empire. The way both societies deal with this journey not only provides the book with plenty of drama and tension but a deep and nuanced philosophy.

I might be insulting Tchaikovsky, whose work I’ve never read before, that I was caught by surprise by how smart and profound Children of Time was.   As Peter Hamilton says on the less than inspiring front cover, this truly is very smart science fiction.

May 28

Week 21: Can you be ambitious and uninspiring?

Books Read

Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Currently Reading 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

(1)

Arcadia by Iain Pears was structured (designed) to be read via an interactive app. According to Pears in an article he wrote for The Guardian he wanted to:

write something even more complex, I began to think about how to make my readers’ lives as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure… to put it another way, it becomes fairly straightforward (in theory) to create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.

There’s something wrong-headed in the idea of using technology to dumb down the reading experience.  Still, I can appreciate the attraction that technology provides, the ability to tell stories that play with form and structure and deliberately eschew a linear narrative.  And the e-book or app certainly seems like the perfect delivery mechanism, whether it’s inserting video or music into the narrative or in the case of Arcadia providing the reader with the opportunity to choose their own path through the story.  I did download the app, and while I found it easy to navigate and could imagine myself getting lost in the branches of the narrative, I ended up reading the novel the old-fashioned way. (I should note that the need to pay a further $6 for a book I’d already purchased was major disincentive).

In spite of what Pears’ says there’s nothing particularly complex about Arcadia. The overall plot, for all of Pears’ attempts to muddy the waters by having ten point of view characters, is straightforward and familiar.  It’s essentially an overblown time travel story masquerading as a spy thriller, a secondary world fantasy and a far future technocratic dystopia.  But what’s striking about the book isn’t the way Pears juggles the varied strands of the plot, but how polite and mannered the novel is.  No-one swears, there’s only a modicum of violence and even with reality under threat of total collapse it all feels a little too dignified.  Twee you might say.

The three main settings are also lackluster and uninspiring.  The technocratic future is pure cliché, cut and pasted from any number of young adult dystopian novels.  It even features a multi-billionaire megalomaniac, old as creation, who no one has laid eyes upon for years but who controls every aspect of society.  The plot strand set in Oxford during the 60s provides us with a half-baked espionage plot, an afterthought rather than a key aspect of the novel (the identity of the Russian sleeper spy is also obvious if you’ve ever read or watched a Cold War thriller).   Finally Anterworld, the fantasy environment, feels like it’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget.  This is partly deliberate, Anterworld is based on the sketchy musings of an Oxford Professor.  But by the end of the novel we, the reader, are meant to view Anterworld as a place that’s grown beyond the bare bone notes of its original author / creator.  And yet I never felt that Anterworld was anything more than a dull, poorly conceived secondary world.

I didn’t hate Arcadia.  Like a half-decent popcorn movie it was, more or less, an entertaining reading experience.  It’s also possible that if I’d read the book as intended the problems I note above might not have been as evident.  Still, I can’t help but think that Arcadia’s ambition was all in the technology and sadly not in the characters, settings or plot.

(2)

I’ll be discussing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky on the next episode of the Coode Street Roundtable.  All going well it will be recorded next  weekend.

May 18

Week 19 / 20: The Nebulas are awarded, a fluid identity and the greatest anthropologists of the American People

Books Read

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Currently Reading 

Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

(1)

I skipped a week.  That’s going to happen from time to time as life – work, family, general laziness – gets in the way.  It’s not that this blog isn’t important to me, it’s just that sometimes I’d rather fall asleep on the couch halfway through the latest James Bond film with my iPad lying precariously on my chest rather than sit in front of a hot computer banging out another vaguely coherent review.  But I’ll always come back to this blog.  Maybe.

(2)

The winners of the Nebula’s were announced, a full list of which can be found here.  The winner for best novel went to Uprooted by Naomi Novik, a book loved by many of my friends and one that I wanted to love more.  As I’ve said previously, I believe the best novel on the list by quite a fair margin was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (The Grace of Kings would have been my second choice if I could vote for the Nebulas, which I can’t).  Having said that, congratulations to Naomi Novik and to all the winners.

(3)

In his review for The Guardian John Self describes Hugo Wilcken’s The Reflection as a “roller coaster, a helter skelter a whole literary fairground” where the “truth is just out of reach”.  It’s a perfect summation of the novel and if I was smart and not prone to rambling I’d leave things there and suggest you read the rest of John Self’s review or better yet the novel he’s talking about.  Because The Reflection is precisely that a roller coaster ride, a literary fairground, filled with sly winks and literary allusions, many which I’m sure went over my head.  With its noir tone and Kafkaesque plot with a hint of M. C. Escher, Wilcken brilliantly deconstructs one of the mainstays of literary fiction, the question of identity.

Describing the plot of The Reflection is a fool’s errand.  Not because it’s so opaque or twisty and turny that it defies elucidation but because there’s this need to constantly contextualize why Doctor David Manne (psychiatrist) might be suffering from a mental breakdown – assuming that our point of view character is, in fact, Doctor Manne.  What I will say (Self does this far better in his review) is the novel opens with Manne discovering that his ex-wife, Abby, has died unexpectedly from an aggressive form of throat cancer.  Soon after being told this news, Manne is asked by the police to consult on a possible domestic abuse case where the husband, a Mr Esterhazy, is denying that (a) he hit his wife (b) that he’s married and (c) that his name is Mr Esterharzy – he refers to himself as Smith.  Manne agrees to have Esterhazy committed, but this experience coupled with the death of his ex-wife tugs on Manne’s fragile sense of self.

This is more than just a novel about a man who is mistaken for being someone else or who in the final pages, via a massive twist that no-one, including the author, saw coming, discovers that he was Jack The Ripper all along.  Yes, Manne / Esterhazy / Smith is the most unreliable of narrators, but that’s clear a third of the way through the novel.  Manne’s inability to piece together who he is, while almost seamlessly swapping between identities and origin stories is both confounding, but also clearly laid out by Wilcken.  There’s no trickery here.  And yet this pervasive sense of dislocation that Manne / Smith / Esterhazy experience means, as Self aptly points out, that the truth is always out of reach.

This novel will frustrate some readers because it is a puzzle box without a clear solution.  But that’s part of the enjoyment.  While it might not have been Wilcken’s intent the novel did make me question how fiction frames the question of identity.  Whether it’s the hero’s journey or an epiphany during a moment of high drama, there’s a general sense that a character’s arc, their journey through the narrative, is about shoring up that person’s sense of who they are.  Wilcken says: fuck that for a game of cards.  Identity has never been that simple, it’s far more fluid than that.  And for Doctor David Manne – if that’s his real name – this fluidity makes for a fantastic and dark and surreal reading experience.

(4)

Last year (2015) was the fortieth anniversary of the Fall or Liberation of Saigon, an event that effectively ended the Vietnam War.  In the opening chapters of his début and Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer (it also won an Edgar for best first novel), Viet Thanh Nguyen provides a visceral account of the American evacuation of the city through the eyes of a South Vietnamese army captain who also happens to be a sleeper agent for the communist North.  In a scene that’s tragic and horrifying for those who are left behind but also perversely thrilling as planes and helicopters come under fire from the North Vietnamese military our narrator and a select group of army officials and their families escape to America.  For our nameless, referred throughout as the Captain, his task is to report back to the Vietcong the intentions of “the General” a top ranking soldier in the south Vietnamese Army who dreams of taking back Saigon from the communists.

Thematically and in terms of plot, there’s a great deal going on in the novel.  For our narrator he has to juggle the coded demands of the newly established communist Government while also proving to the General that he’s still loyal to the South Vietnamese.  This requires him to kill innocent men who threaten the General’s plans and enduring the associated guilt that comes with these acts of violence.  But in among these moments of tension and violence and the gut churning fear that any moment he will be found out as a spy, both the Captain and Nguyen comment on issues that go beyond Saigon, the Vietnam War and the evils of communism.  In particular the book deals with issues of immigration, assimilation, representation of the “other” and the bonds of friendship.

In the case of immigration the Captain provides some hilarious insights into American culture, especially in the context of those in power, such as a Californian Congressman who support the General and his plan to retake Vietnam.  At one point the Captain opines that the immigrant, whether Vietnamese or otherwise, “were the greatest anthropologists of the American people.” something Americans never realised because the field notes “were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin.”  There’s something poignant and profound about this observation given all the talk today of how immigrants refuse to assimilate.

While the Vietnamese might be cognizant of their hosts, Nguyen also explores the unwillingness on the part of American’s – especially in terms of the mainstream media – to understand other cultures.  Again Nguyen’s dry sense of humour and sharp observations come to the fore as the Captain is asked to join a film set in the Philippines to consult on a movie about the Vietnam War directed by “the Auteur” a man who may, or may not, be based on Francis Ford Coppola.  The Captain’s initial attempts to convince the Auteur to more accurately represent his people, both South and North, results in a film that treats the Vietnamese as villain and victim while presenting the American soldier as a noble, tragic figure making the best of a horrible situation.

However, the theme that takes primacy above all else is that of friendship.  The Captain’s childhood bond with Man – a major figure in the Communist party – and Bon – a man who fought for the South and lost his wife and son during the evacuation of Saigon – reverberates throughout the novel.  Every choice the Captain makes is directly linked to this friendship, whether it’s protecting Bon from his self-destructive desire to destroy those who murdered the people he loved or following the coded orders sent to him by Man on behalf of the communist regime.  The last third of the novel is especially an expression of that friendship as the Captain, against his better judgement, decides to follow Bon to Vietnam as part of crazy plan cooked up by the General to retake the country.  The Captain’s intent is to keep his mate alive, but their inevitable capture by the communists leads to a confronting, powerful interrogation scene between the Captain and Man.  Interrogation scene aside, if I was less than invested in the last third of the novel it’s because I missed the Captain’s and Nguyen’s wry observations of American culture and the migrant experience.

(5)

If you’d like to know what I thought of Aurealis award-winning novels In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker and A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay you’ll need to listen to the latest episode of The Writer and The Critic (which will be out shortly… )

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