The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press, 2015, 367 pp
Summary from Goodreads: 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 novel, 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.
This is the best novel I have read so far in 2016. It is super smart, employs excellent satire, contains huge amounts of empathic emotion, has sections that read like a John le Carre spy thriller...I could go on and on.
The author was born in Vietnam and fled with his family in 1975 during the fall of Saigon at the age of four. He spun that trauma into an intricate story about a Vietnamese double agent, spying for the North Vietnamese while working as a CIA-trained spy inside the South Vietnamese Army.
Most literature about the Vietnam War has been written by American, British, or French authors. While Viet Nguyen grew up as a deeply Americanized immigrant, he was also immersed in his extended Vietnamese family and community. He seems to have internalized the conflict, the sense of loss of country, and the feeling that for these immigrants, the war never ended.
If you grew up or were an American young person during that war, especially if you were against the war, but maybe even if you weren't, I think you need to read this novel. It is the other side of the story, the one we never got in the news, but a big part of the reason we protested.
The author also examines conscience, friendship, effects of being a mixed race child in Vietnam, love of family, and coming of age as an immigrant in America. Highly, highly recommended.
The book made it through two rounds of The Tournament of Books and while I felt fine about The Sellout (review coming soon) winning, I would have loved it had The Sympathizer won. It is out in paperback next week.
(The Sympathizer is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)