Category Archives: Vietnam

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

First released by Gaspereau Press, a small publishing house in Nova Scotia, this novel tells the story of a daughter following the trail of her father’s past and trying to piece together the puzzle of her family and of the relationship formed between her Dad, Napoleon Haskell, and his friend Henry Carey.

The sentimentalists starts with the narrator and her sister moving their Dad from Fargo, North Dakota to Henry’s house, a house that sits on the shores of a lake in Ontario, Canada.   This is no ordinary lake.  It was created years ago, by a dam built to create a reservoir that flooded whole towns and covered the house and land that Henry, and Henry’s son Owen, had grown up in.

Skibsrud is a poet and the emotional depth of this small novel comes in images created by her beautiful way with language.  The lake holds memories, an unfinished boat holds the desolation of Napoleon’s marriage.  Eventually, Napoleon is dying, we learn some of his history and the basis for the connection between him and Henry.

There was something in his voice, though – an apology for something too big for him, and which was perhaps not even intended for me – and still, he regarded me as he spoke.  Still, it was as though he were in fact reaching out.  As though he were in fact touching me.  But for once he did not, and after some time passed into which we again said nothing, I started the motor on the boat and drove off.  From page 126.

There is  sadness in the novel, also a sense of resolution and deep love.   I wondered how connected it’s roots are to Johanna Skibrud’s relationship with her  father.  Turns out part of it is based on her Father’s testimony at a hearing for an Article 32 investigation of an  incident at Quang Tri, South Vietnam, in October  1967.

It seems we are entering a time to revisit the war in Southeast Asia through fiction.  I have read two novels about Vietnam and one about Cambodia in the last two months.  Maybe it’s time to read The Things They Carried again.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Review, Vietnam

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

St Martins Griffin, New York, 2010

From my TBR shelf.  Earlier in the year I read about this novel on many of my favorite blogs.

In the fall of 1965 Helen Adams arrived in Vietnam trying to find out about the death of her brother Michael and a desire to break out of her normal life.

    ” My brother wrote me a letter before he was killed.  He said no matter what happened he couldn’t regret coming.  I needed to see for myself.  And the only way to become famous is to cover combat, right?  I dropped out because I was worried it would be over by the time I graduated.”  From pages 86/87.

Drawn into the excitement and chaos of  war and attracted to combat photographer Sam Darrow, Helen stays, learns to take photographs and discovers an obsession she had no idea she was carrying.

This book surprised me.  I find it is hard to believe it is Tatjana Soli’s first novel.

When I first started reading it I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would this be a story that revolved around the covert and overt attractions between three photographers?  Would it be a blood and guts war story?  What I found was a tightly woven novel that brought the “American war” to me  in a way that connects it to the land and its people.  It is beautiful and appalling and after reading a few pages I found it hard to put down.

All I can do now is include a few passages and hope they seduce you, cause you to pick up and read this book.

She rode out with the helicopter pilots high over the land of the delta south of Saigon, trailing over the endless paddy fields that reflected up at them like broken pieces of a mirror.  The dull green of choking jungle and sinewy-limbed mangrove swamp contrasting with the light green of new rice; the land only rarely broken signs of human habitation – small clusters of thatched roofs or an occasional one of red tile.  From above, the land appeared empty and peaceful, only farmers bent  in the paddies or orchards  She sat like a tourist, enthralled by the dirty green and reddish brown rivers, slow and thick-moving like veins pumping life into the lands.  From page 116.

After the calm of the village, the sheer numbers of people overwhelmed; the scale of the disaster made her feel useless.  Dry-mouthed, she licked her lips, tasting salt, growing more thirsty.  When an old man collapsed on the side of the road, she stooped down, shielding him from view, and gave him precious mouthfuls of water, but in seconds a crowd formed, and she had to move on.  From page 203.

The Vietnamese called the the Tay Nguyen, the Western Highlands, because in their minds they saw the country as a whole, not accepting the artificial divisions of north and south.

Names were important.

Names, finally, were the only things the Vietnamese had left.  For a whole period of history, Vietnam existed only on the tip of someone’s tongue, forbidden to be said out loud.

Geography became power.  From page 317.

I have read other books about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, Dispatches and Fire in the Lake, being the most memorable.  I am adding The Lotus Eaters to that list.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Historical Fiction, Review, Vietnam