It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.
The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause.
A gripping spy story, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.
"[A] dark and exciting debut novel.... Black humour seeps through these pages." ( Wall Street Journal)
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Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Simon on 06-11-16
The Unknown Underlined by the Unspoken
I know I know, ideas above my station! From Child, Rankin and Cornwell to Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel! The thing is when I saw the 2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner unrated at the time, possibly unread and seemingly unloved it just seemed too much of a curio to turn my head from. I'm not even going to begin to pretend that I know what makes a good prize winning novel, that's for much wiser minds than mine to weigh up and decide upon.
But did the book entertain me? Hell yes! Some of the passages have genuine humour and much of the book is blackly satirical and just as an example includes the lead character's discovery of the sexuality of raw squid! I'll say no more on that but a myriad topics get covered and while these characters existed half a world apart from me it seems, shock horror, that there are more similarities between the peoples of the world than disparities.
Did the book make me think? Yes again. This does descend to some pretty dark stuff including incidents of violence, conscience, political expedience and the mental cruelty of torture. Our written narrator is not only of mixed parentage, something looked down upon in the Vietnamese culture but also a Viet Cong double agent! That's enough to stretch anyone's mind and the author takes no prisoners while discussing both Western and Oriental culture.
Did the book excite me? Yes, there are some tense scenes including the early escape from Vietnam which was particularly well done albeit tragic in nature.
So was it great? I suspect as books go it genuinely is. So much so that I will return to it as I have no doubt that multiple re-readings would unearth more gems from this multi-layered tome. As an audiobook it's not perfect though and it does take considerable concentration. At least by my standards! Francois Chau's mildly accented English gives the feel of authenticity but otherwise paints the text in fairly arid tones. I am sure I lost nuance in some of the more philosophical and humorous passages.
So, a very accomplished book and one that I am very glad that I have completed. So much so that I will indeed give it another try some time to see what I missed first time!
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