American photo-journalist Helen Adams has been in Vietnam for 10 years. It is the place that claimed her brother's life, a place of great tragedy and of great and abiding love. She came to Vietnam on her own as a freelancer who dropped out of college in order to cover the war and make her mark before it all ends and ultimately grew into a respected photo-journalist covering the war as well as into a person who counts, even personifies, the human toll of the war. Her unique situation in country allows her to see the war from multiple perspectives, to sympathize with each side and to mourn casualties and devastation alike.
When Helen arrives in Vietnam, she is one of the few Western women in the country and in fact she remains an oddity like this for the duration of the war. She connects with a group of male journalists, having an affair with one of these jaded and doomed men. As his protege, she meets a local translator and goes on junkets with troops, honing her craft as she faces the realities of the war through the eyes of the local villagers as well as the young, scared American troops. Under Darrow's tutelage, she learns to be a brilliant photographer becoming addicted to the war, to the adrenaline-rush, to the danger, and to Vietnam itself. In the end, Helen is also addicted to Linh, a Vietnamese man who is a deserter, her interpreter, the man to whom her well-being was entrusted by Darrow and ultimately her lover and husband. Linh is incredibly conflicted, having been conscripted into an army and having suffered unimaginable losses because of the ongoing war. Together, this young, enthusiastic American woman and this emotionally battered Vietnamese man forge an unbending connection to each other and to the truth of the war they are living.
It is really the human connection that makes this novel so powerful and affecting. Soli invokes the reality of place and the horror of war without passing judgment but without white-washing anything either. Helen is a naive and appealing character at the beginning of the story and she is a strong and wonderful character, albeit one without any illusions, at the end. Linh is a multi-dimensional character with a real and realistic emotional reserve. The framing technique, whereby the story starts with the fall of Saigon and with the difficult and painful goodbye between Helen and Linh, only to go back in time and start at the beginning of the war, at the very nascence of their relationship, before love, is incredibly effective. Knowing the ending, being given the essence of the novel first, does not detract from its addictive sway over the reader at all, in fact it heightens the appreciation of the journey. Obsession, war, love, expedience, all are written into these pages with a meticulous eye to detail and poetry. Highly recommended for those in search of a gripping, well-written novel.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.