I have just finished reading Marti Lembach’s The Man from Saigon set in the Vietnam War.
While I am fascinated with all countries, I tend to stay away from books set during this war, perhaps because I have seen so many films and television series about the conflict that I feel I already have a pretty clear picture of what it was like. I don’t feel the need to read about American soldiers trying to avoid the Viet Cong as they make their way through the jungle, or try to understand their fear as they struggle with fighting an impossible war – this has all been so well covered already.
But what attracted me to this particular novel is that the protaganist is a western woman, which is certainly unusual in films and books based on the Vietnam War.
Susan Gifford is one of the few female journalists based in Saigon in 1967,and perhaps what makes the story even more endearing, is that she is there to write’ Women’s Interest’ stories for a women’s magazine. She is totally unprepared for the realities of the environment she finds herself in. But our leading lady is resourceful and intelligent if not a little reckless, and before long she finds herself in situations which would challenge the best-trained soldier or most battle-hardened foreign correspondent.
While this novel still sees some trekking through the jungle and avoiding of explosions, it is the emotional context of the writing that I found the most compelling. Susan becomes involved in complex relationships with both her Vietnamese photographer Son and an American television correspondent Marc – relationships obviously complicated by the environment they find themselves in, where the usual rules of play are abandoned and nothing is quite as it seems.
There is no shortage of the realities of war in this novel and like any book about this conflict we are exposed to the blood and fear of the time, but Susan’s interpretations of what she sees give us a slightly different perspective from what you are likely to have seen or read before. There is real emotional depth here, and I especially enjoyed Leimbach’s exploring of love and connection under the most difficult of circumstances.
The world of the foreign correspondents rings true and while I am no expert, Leimbach’s research of all things military appears thorough.
In terms of location, while the book is ostensibly set in Saigon, we spend much of the time out of the city on Susan’s various field assignments – the Mekong Delta, Con Thien, Pleiku, Loc Ninh.
While The Man From Saigon may not give you much of a picture of these places in modern day Vietnam, it is one more valuable addition to our understanding of its past and well worth a read.
And if you’d like to explore the country a little further then take a visit to our page dedicated to books set in Vietnam.
Karl Marlantes is a former marine who, in 1977, wrote a novel inspired by his time in combat in Vietnam. Thirty-three years later Matterhorn is finally hitting the shelves.
The book was rejected over and over again, and as the years passed, suggestions made that Marlantes should change the location to feature more modern conflicts – The Gulf War or Afghanistan. But eventually, after persistence and some recommendations to publishers, it has now been released to great acclaim. Some reviewers have gone as far as saying it could well be the ‘Book of the Year’.
If you are looking for a novel that portrays the realities of war in Vietnam, you could do much worse than pick up a copy of Matterhorn.
Reviewers say the detail of Marlantes’s writing places readers firmly in the jungle highlands of South-East Vietnam. Centered on the experience of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas and his Bravo Company we are right alongside them as they face their fears of combat and the harshness of the jungle conditions.
I am not a great lover of war stories – for me, I just want to know who wins and who loses, and what the women at home were doing at the time – but if you are someone who relishes the gritty detail of battle, who wants to feel the pain, frustration and comradeship of jungle warfare, then why not give Matterhorn a try? You will be joining many others keen to immerse themselves in the Vietnam conflict.
This month also sees the release of a 20th anniversary edition of one of the most famous collections of Vietnam War short stories to be published – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The book has long been prescribed reading in the U.S. and is a mixture of memoir, history and fiction which questions the reasons for war and the cost to the individual.
It is interesting that as the U.S and its allies find themselves more and more deeply embroiled in the war in Afghanistan, it is Vietnam that is once again attracting the attention of readers. War may not be a pretty subject, but if reading about Vietnam encourages readers to ask questions about current conflicts, then this can only be a good thing.
For more books on Vietnam visit Packabook’s Books Set in Vietnam. While there are further works on the war itself, there are also tales of modern Vietnam and even the odd love story!