Monday, November 19, 2012

Literary Monday - Vietnam as you've never seen it

I was a child when the Vietnam war (the one the USA was involved in - there were a lot of conflicts that involved Vietnam, or Indochina as it used to be called) was going on.  The news was boring and it seemed like the same thing every night, so I didn't pay much attention.  The first novel about or set in Vietnam that I remember reading was Up Country by Nelson Demille, published in 2002.  I originally picked it up because it continued the story of Paul Brenner, one of Demille's characters who appeared in The General's Daughter.  It's a fairly fat book, but once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.  Up Country is based loosely on Demille's own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and I recommend it highly.

I just finished another outstanding book set in Vietnam:

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam - this is Vincent Lam's first novel, although he has previously published a collection of short stories.  Percival Chen's father went to Vietnam (Indochina) to work when Percival was a child, and never really returned to China except for a few brief visits, although he did support Percival and his mother.  When the Japanese invade China during World War II, Percival is able to obtain a visa for Vietnam because his father lives there, and he and his new wife travel to Vietnam for what they believe will be a short stay, until the war ends.  But it is easy to make money in Vietnam and they end up staying permanently, with Percival first working in the rice trade, and later, opening a very successful English language school.  Percival is not always a likeable character - the word "hubris" describes his actions throughout much of the book.  He is self-centered, he likes to flash money around and has quite a few vices, he does not pay attention to managing his school, he ignores what is going on around him in the belief that nothing will change.  I repeatedly found myself wanting to slap some sense into him.

A number of themes run through the book in addition to Vietnamese and Chinese history:  fathers and sons, love and loss, friendship and betrayal, awareness and naivete, changing realities and disbelief.  Very well-drawn characters, excellent pacing, and a plot that keeps building all contribute to the book's excellence.  Vincent Lam based the story on his grandfather's experiences as a Chinese national living in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  I look forward to reading more from him.

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