Spies in Canaan by David Park: ‘Stand up straight and true’

Cover image for Spies in Canaan by David ParkI’ve read and enjoyed David Park’s fiction before, admiring his quietly elegant style, and was keen to read Spies in Canaan, putting it aside for a little while after it popped through my letterbox. In the event, I read it against the backdrop of Russia’s preparations for invading Ukraine, horribly appropriate for this novel which sees a man who’s spent his life in the shadow of his brief time in Saigon before its fall in 1975.

Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan

Ten were bad, two were good 

Michael Miller grew up in a Presbyterian mid-west household, a faith he’s long since lost. A degree in French from an Ivy League college saw him appointed to a grunt job sifting intelligence for the CIA in Saigon, arriving in the halcyon days following the Paris Peace Accords. Michael is a quiet young man, not the sort to carouse or spend time with local bar girls, who becomes friends with Corley, a propaganda writer, pining for his girlfriend back home. Michael’s language skills land him the occasional mission working for the dismissive Ignatius Donovan, accompanying him to meetings at Le Porte Bleue where the owner’s beautiful daughter catches his eye. As incursions are made into the city, Michael becomes involved in an interrogation that will throw a long shadow over his life. Decades after his escape as the city fell, Michael receives a DVD from Corley, a documentary at the end of which he sees Donovan in shot. When he eventually decides to visit this man whose disparaging opinion he’s never escaped, Michael finds him helping Mexicans who brave the dangers of crossing the border illegally, operating against the backdrop of an America marching towards a presidency characterised by prejudice and violence. Questions that have dogged Michael for decades need answering and an opportunity for atonement presents itself.

They had worked for us, he shouted, and now they were being betrayed. Left to die, their families left to rot. 

Park’s novella may be slim but the overarching themes running through it are both broad and important. Much of the book is set against the backdrop of Saigon in the days before its fall, made all the more resonant given the misery ensuing from the exit from Afghanistan last year: the same promises made to staff who worked with their country’s invaders in the hope of its liberation, the same abandonment of many of them to a miserable fate. The question of what happened to the café owner’s daughter, pregnant with Donovan’s child, and the part he played in her probable fate together with his complicity in Donovan’s interrogation tactics, has left Michael scarred by an experience he was incapable of preventing. When the chance comes to redeem himself, he’s hesitant but there are no happy endings here. An immensely powerful piece of fiction, and a sobering one.

Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526631930 208 pages Hardback


15 thoughts on “Spies in Canaan by David Park: ‘Stand up straight and true’”

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Cathy. It’s that quiet understatement and elegance that I admire so much with his writing. There was a profundity to this one that made it particualrly striking.

  1. David Park isn’t a writer I have heard of before, but this novel sounds interesting. I can see why reading it around the time of the Russian invasion resonated with you.

  2. I was astonished at the end of your review when you said this was a novella – the scope and themes seem enormous. I’ve not read this author but he sounds so impressive.

    1. I’ve long admired his writing but Spies… is the most ambitious I’ve come across in terms of thematic scope and it’s quite stunning. Novellas are the best! But I don’t need to tell you that.

  3. This does sound powerful and very relevant to the current time (or any time really, for intervention, and sudden ‘abandonment’ have taken place off and on, and the same issues arise each time). Parks isn’t an author I’ve come across before, so thanks for highlighting this book.

  4. I can see why this landed so powerfully for you, especially given the timing. Park sounds like a very accomplished writer – I do remember seeing some very good reports of his last novel, and will definitely keep him in mind for the future.

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