Plot: Percival Chen is the headmaster of a prestigious English academy in Cholon, the chinese district of Saigon, in the 1960s. He has thrived through several violent changes in government thanks to some contacts and many well-placed bribes and ignores the troubles of his adopted country in favour of gambling and women. But when his son Dai Jai gets in trouble with the authorities, his contacts and his money are not enough to save him: the only solution is to send him away. In his loneliness, he meets Jacqueline and takes her as his lover. His life seems perfect for a while but soon war and politics begin encroaching on his life again and he is forced to face some very difficult truths.
And now for something completely different. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction these days (though telling me it’s historical and takes place in Asia always helps) but my friends recommended this book for our book club. It was a finalist for the Governor General’s award and has been getting some pretty good buzz, which is promising. But Lam is a doctor and his first book was non-fiction so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I apologize to Lam right now for having any doubts: his prose is gorgeous and his pacing is perfect. This is a little gem of a book and it offers a very different look at the Vietnam War.
I really got caught up in the story. At times I was yelling at the book, or rather at Percival… which quite upset my cat who shares his name. It was actually rather upsetting to me, though not in the way you might imagine. Lam takes on some very difficult issues: torture, cruelty, hopelessness, oppression, senseless deaths… there’s more than enough to make a person uncomfortable, even a little ill. But it was Percival that had me on edge. He makes terrible choices: he’s a gambler and a womanizer, he is proud, inflexible and often thoughtless, he repeats all his father’s mistakes. And time and again it turns out ok. I kept waiting for the worst to happen, for the hammer to finally drop. And then it didn’t. This terrible thing that I knew would have to happen eventually (because who ever heard of a happy story about the Vietnam War?) was just hovering over me and it was starting to stress me out. I think I know what it must have felt like to be Percival’s friend Mak, who is constantly cleaning up his messes. The other characters, like Mak but also Percival’s ex-wife Cecilia and his lover Jacqueline, elicited a lot more sympathy from me. If you don’t feel like crying at the end, you may be a monster. Just saying. 😉
You may have noticed if you’ve followed my blog for a while, but I love unreliable narrators and Percival definitely fits into that category. He doesn’t understand or willfully ignores what is truly going on and who the people around him are. This is unsympathetic at first and heart breakingly tragic toward the end. But what is amazing is that Lam is able to reveal things about the other characters, to flesh them out and suggest different view points, in spite of Percival’s blindness. For example, though Percival rarely describes his ex-wife as anything but a spoiled temptress and a shrew, it is not hard to understand why she does the things she does and to feel bad for the fate she has been handed. But the character that most tugged on my heart strings was Jacqueline: half-French and half-Vietnamese, living on her own and doing what she must to survive in a society where she is both a figure of desire and disgust.
Meanwhile the descriptions are lush and detailed. And there is so much rich history skillfully woven into the story. It was like being there… which was another slightly uncomfortable feeling.
This is not an easy book but, in spite of and because of this, I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to discuss it with my friends!