Tag Archives: vietnam

Two Reviews at Once

‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene and ‘Postcards from Nam’ by Uyen Nicole Duong.

I’m posting these two reviews together because my time over the past few weeks, while I was reading these two books, has been taken up writing my Christian story for AlfieDog.  They shall probably be the last on Vietnam that I shall tackle for a while.  I am considering writing my own story about the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’) and both these two and ‘The Girl in the Picture’ (two posts ago) provided valuable background detail.

Set at the very end of French colonial period (1954), ‘The Quiet American’ concerns Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering The War.  A dope smoker and a cynic, he is determined not to take sides or ‘get involved’ at all – except with the beautiful Saigonese girl, Phuong – his surname was apt in a very Dickensian way.  ‘The Quiet American’ featured the typical Greene scenario, man abroad in remote colonies with the usual Roman Catholic wife who wouldn’t divorce him.  The non-noisy Yankee himself, Alden Pyle, is, on the other hand, naive, in the Far East for the first time, but quite sure that all Indochina’s problems can resolved by a ‘Third Force’, something he has read about in books by York Harding but never experienced.   Interestingly, this novel is named for someone who is not the main character, even though it is written in the first person (Fowler’s).

Greene wrsaigon_hotelote in an understated style which doesn’t get in the way of the storyline.  The novel is unhurried, occasionally rambling, allowing ample room for character development, although I think we get the picture on Fowler and Pyle quiet early on, then have to suffer it being repeated… er… repeatedly.  Phuong is more complicated, apparently sweet and innocent, but managed by an older sister who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy westerner.  She moves between Fowler, then Pyle, then Fowler again, doing and saying whatever she thinks will please them, all the time calculating which of them is the better prospect.  The saying ‘Marriage is not above love, you know’ comes to mind.saigon_cathedral

‘The Quiet American’ is a valuable primary source (because Greene spent some time in Vietnam), not least because it was published in 1955 and thereby not written under the shadow of the USA’s defeat.  It confirmed what I suspected – contrary to the message presented in every Vietnamese museum – that there was some accommodation between the French colonialists and the native Vietnamese, many of whom made the effort to learn French, as well as bringing to life some of the grander hotels and government buildings which I saw in Saigon.  Pity Greene didn’t like the cathedral – I quite liked it.

‘Postcards From Nam’ is not what I imagined from its title.  In case you were wondering, I had in mind an American soldier writing home, possibly to his girlfriend.  I also bore in mind that a sign reading ‘Nam’ in Vietnam usually indicated mens’ toilets, whereas the ‘Viets’ were one of the many ethnic groups inhabiting that particular narrow strip of the Pacific coast.  The word however has another meaning, that of a nation, and it can also, as in the case of this story, be a boy’s name.  The novel is about a first generation immigrant from Saigon, who is now a successful lawyer in America.  For years, she has received (what I considered to be) creepy post cards, postmarked in Thailand, from somebody called ‘Nam’.  However, neither the author, nor the main character, take on board the fact that she is being stalked and – even more unbelievable – neither Mimi nor her mother can remember that Nam was their neighbour in Saigon, even though the mother is contact with his parents who have moved to California.  The story digresses frequently, from the current day to a few years ago, back to Vietnam in the 1960s when Mimi was a small child, then back to some point in her life in the United States.

What thimodern_saigons work does address very effectively is the appalling suffering of the Vietnamese people after the Americans left and the Communist Viet Minh government took over.  Every Vietnamese we spoke to – even our very PC guide in Hanoi – made the point that life became much worse at this time.  What this book is not short on is vivid and horrific detail, for instance, of the maternity hospital in Saigon, where mothers laboured in a corridor in filth.  The written style was often clunky, but did include some amazing vivid descriptive passages, such as ‘My eyes, throat, and skin were cracking, and liquid was sucked out of me, and I was ready to die like a dehydrated, crumbled leaf, losing its stem, forever departing from its tree, tumbling down, down, down until it could fall no father, onto a damp ground where it gradually disappeared into the earth.  Back to its roots.’  Unfortunately, the ending of the story is ambiguous and inconclusive.

Well, Dear Reader, do I recommend these two novels?  Yes and no.  Graham Greene is Graham Greene and, although ‘The Quiet American’ was competent, I wonder if his publisher didn’t howl, “Really, Graham, we’ve done Catholic wives before.  Many times.  And the colonies.”   ‘Postcards from Nam’, on the other hand, is strong stuff, not for the faint-hearted, but significant for tackling issues which we in the west were only dimly aware of at the time and have now largely forgotten.


Review of 'Austenland 1' by Shannon Hale

This book is available on Amazon here.

I picked this Kindle book at random some time ago, probably because it was reduced in price – I can’t remember. Until I looked it up on the Internet later, I had no idea it had been made into a film, or that there was a sequel. While I was reading it, the story actually felt quite complete.

When I started reading it on the plane, quite a long way into our eleven hour flight, it engaged me right away. Here was this young American woman, living in New York, with a Mother and a jolly great-aunt. Said young girl had a Jane Austen obsession, more particularly a Mr Darcy fixation, which was getting in the way whenever she met a potential boyfriend. In her will, Great Aunt Carolyn left her a trip to a Jane Austen holiday in Kent, as a sort of rehab, to allow mc (whose name was also ‘Jane’) to get over Mr Darcy and on with her life in twenty-first century New York.

This novel was unashamedly genre fiction, but very well-written genre fiction.
The author got into all her characters very effectively, showing attitudes and emotions very effectively through their actions, how they looked, how they moved, or even shifted their position – in the same way as Christopher Isherwood did, actually. For the largest part, she concentrated on the small party of characters in the ‘Jane Austen house’, all of whom were distinct, plausible and well-drawn.

On the other hand, Shannon did ‘tell’ quite a bit, about Jane’s interest in basketball, for instance, which turned up quite suddenly half way through the story. Even more annoying were her frequent changes in points of view – within chapters and even within scenes. Also, although most of the action was supposed to take place in Kent, nothing in the descriptive passages made me feel I was in England, that Shannon had visited Kent at the time she wrote this, or had even researched it.

Would I recommend this book? Well, yes, I enjoyed it. It was a light enjoyable read, but nothing more than that.

Meanwhile here are one photo of Saigon… Beg it’s pardon. Ho Chu Minh City. I’m told by the locals that you should always write Ho Chu Minh City but it’s funny that when they themselves say it out loud, it always comes out as ‘Saigon’.  And a couple of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.

Lilies at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Lilies at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of the buildings at the Royal Palace.

One of the buildings at the Royal Palace.