Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.
There are so many good things about this historical novel that takes place during the Vietnam War, and yet it was very difficult for me to read. Vietnam was a terrible war on many levels. But reading about in a non-fiction setting (as I usually do) neutralizes the emotional impact. Once you transform the nature of the omnipresent fear and death by describing it clinically and analyzing it, by applying to it formulated phrases and academic cadences, you establish distance by largely emptying it of emotional content. But to couch the images of horror into the narrative framework of fiction, you yourself enter that hell as you increasingly get lost in the story. And it is then that passivity escapes you, and what has been bearable becomes so painful to contemplate.
The story takes place from 1963 to 1975. Sam Darrow is a prize-winning photojournalist who is one of the raucous group Helen Adams meets when she comes in Saigon in 1965. Helen, a pioneering (and at first amateur) female photojournalist, wants to contribute to the war that has already claimed her brother’s life.
Shortly after Helen’s arrival, she begins an affair with Sam, but he dies on a photography mission right before they were finally scheduled to leave the country. After she recovers, she marries a South Vietnamese man, Nguyen Pran Linh, who had served as assistant to both her and Sam, and who had always loved her.
As background to these affairs, passage after passage conveys the constant tension and fear among both the troops and the embedded photojournalists:
“Helen saw spooked faces; the eyes of the soldiers hard and distrustful. Jumpy. Hot and without sleep, walking around with fingers tight on the triggers of their weapons.”
Sometimes the fear overcame the soldiers, and they took it out on South Vietnamese civilians. Helen became afraid of her own country’s soldiers.
When Saigon falls, and the lives of both Helen and Linh are in danger because of the invasion of the North Vietnamese Army, they head for the sanctuary of the American Embassy. But Helen finds it difficult to leave: she has become addicted to the intensity of war:
“Outside, they plunged into a stream of people and were carried along. The ruttish noise deafening. Families argued over which direction to go, children cried, dogs barked, and on top of it all was the impatient blaring of horns as vehicles tried to force their way through. Far in the background, like the steady thrum of a heart, the sound of bombs exploding. The image of a bloodthirsty army approaching closer and closer made each person jog instead of walk, push instead of wait. Like a fix, Helen ached to pick up her camera and start shooting. What was the point of living through history if you didn’t record it?”
But by staying, she risks dangers even she had not contemplated.
Discussion: Although this book contains a love story, it isn’t the only focus of the book. Rather, there are several themes that take center stage.
One of the issues with which the characters – all photojournalists – grapple, is the perception of war they are providing by their pictures. What effect are they having on others experiencing and responding to to reality of the war: are their images exploitative? Are they unconsciously skewed to create support or opposition to the war? Certainly their own biases about what is worthy of photographing affects widespread perception of what is happening, and they become “interpreters of violence” (as the famous female photographer Dickey Chapelle confessed in her memoirs). Or worse, by publishing these moments of hell out of context, are they, as Susan Sontag suggested, in essence equating them with products in ads or celebrity shots? Are the sheer volume and repetition of the pictures, as Sam feared, making the horror “palatable”?
Sam was keenly aware of the lessening of meaning over time and was afraid it was reflected in his pictures:
“Was his own work perpetrating the same on those it came into contact with? A steady loss of impact until violence became meaningless?”
Furthermore, is there something pornographic about the voyeurism of those who create, and those who observe, the pictures? As Helen muses:
“No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic: ‘I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker.’ Afterward, film shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other.”
A second issue plays a large role in this book: the addictive adrenaline rush that kept so many photojournalists plunging back into danger, long after the need for more pictures had disappeared. Sam explained to Helen the addictive attraction to war when she first arrived:
“That’s one of the keys to life here. Sudden and sublime. Sudden and awful. Everything distilled to its most intense. That’s why we’re all hooked.”
Adrenalin feeds the intensity, and the intensity in turn feeds the feeling of self-actualization, if only for the moment. As Sam told Helen:
“Being there I felt my life was bigger than it had been before.”
Helen, too, came to feel the same way,
” . . . how despite the fear and the anger, she had been awake in the deepest way, in a way that ordinary life could not compete with.”
Third, there is a brief exploration of the way in which living through a war increases passion generally, and heightens it in the particular, as all the characters look for love, or sex, or any form of human closeness. Their desperation illustrates the need in war (and its concomitant awareness of the closeness of death) to feel something maximally, even as one must develop emotional anesthesia to the savagery all around them.
Perhaps the issue having the most impact on me as an American is the one that looks at how the South Vietnamese felt about the devastation of their country. At one point Linh, filled with despair and just wanting the destruction to stop, reflects:
“What [Helen] didn’t understand was that both sides were willing to destroy the country to gain their own ends. Whose side was he on? Whoever’s side saved men, women, animals, trees, grass, hillsides, and rice paddies. The side that saved villages and children. That got rid of the poisons that lay in the earth. But he did not know whose side that was.”
Evaluation: This is an intense book that uses meticulous research to form a story exploring the addictive nature of war. The movie “The Hurt Locker” is an obvious comparison, but the book also made me think of the movie “Coming Home,” which so brilliantly exposes the deleterious effects of the Vietnam War on the soldiers who had to go fight in this hellish quagmire. If you are unfamiliar with the pain and chaos and fear that made Vietnam so awful for both civilians and military, this book will take you on an un-sugar-coated odyssey through Hell. Especially for Americans, I believe it’s a trip that should be taken.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2010