In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker
A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
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.
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.
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.
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.
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… )