Tag Archives: Vietnam

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood: Belonging, and not belonging

Cover imageSome of you may have noticed that I’m attracted to novels about immigrants. The theme has an entry all to itself in my occasional Five Books I’ve Read series. I’ve lived my life in just one country which is perhaps why I’m so curious about how it might feel to leave your homeland, not always willingly. Abbigail N. Rosewood’s debut, If I Had Two Lives, tells the story of a young woman who spent her first twelve years in Vietnam until her mother’s determination to root out corruption becomes so dangerous that she sends her daughter to the United States.

In 1993, when our unnamed narrator is just three, her mother leaves in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Intent on helping to modernise her country, her mother refuses to let corruption stand in her way. When she’s seven, our narrator is brought to the camp for political prisoners where her mother lives, protected by the man her daughter calls ‘the soldier’. She makes friends with the child of a camp employee, poor in comparison with our narrator’s privilege. These two become the closest of friends, sharing adventures, even dreams, which helps to soothe the wounds inflicted by their parents, emotional and otherwise. The last time our narrator sees her friend, she’s surrounded by the flames of the sugarcane field they’ve set alight. The following day our narrator flies to the States. When we next meet her, she’s supporting herself with a string of dead-end jobs after dropping out of college. An encounter with a woman in a bar results in an immediate connection and, perhaps, a way to fill the emotional chasm she’s endured since she was a child.

Rosewood’s narrator tells her story in her own voice, exploring themes of dislocation and belonging with poignancy and immediacy. Quick to anger, her mother is so driven that she has neither the time nor emotional energy to expend on her daughter who looks for family where she can find it. When she arrives in the States, she tells whatever story she needs to belong, accepting the stereotype of the poor immigrant:

I didn’t realise then that learning a new language permanently separated you from yourself so that each version was neither a lie nor a whole truth

Rosewood’s writing has an aching poignancy, and is often lyrically poetic:

Remembrances were like slivers of glass, crystal clear until you picked them up and smudged their surface with your fingerprints

Her narrator’s story is one of loss, isolation and a yearning to belong, summed up for me in the quietly devastating line: What I learned over the years – abandonment was love’s destiny. You’ll be relieved to hear it ends on a note of hope.

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding: The inescapable shadow of war

Cover imageI’ve been an admirer of Georgina Harding’s writing since reading  her debut with its poetically beautiful descriptive passages. Each of her four novels is very different from the other although three share the theme of the aftermath of war. Set in 1616 The Solitude of Thomas Cave took us to the Arctic where one man elects to leave the whaling ship that brought him there and stay for a year. The Spy Game leapt forward to 1961 with a little girl piecing together an explanation for herself about her mother’s disappearance. The Painter of Silence has 1950s Romania as its backdrop where a man, both deaf and mute, discovers a connection with a young nurse that helps him unlock his past. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars.

Jonathan Ashe has managed to hitch a ride in a helicopter but what was to be merely a chance to see what the country looks like turns into something else when the pilot spots a village under fire. Jonathan sees a young woman, her body splayed on the ground with a stomach wound clearly visible. Then he thinks he sees a soldier shoot her in the head. By the time they land, the action is over. Jonathan photographs a soldier sitting, stunned, then finds the young woman dead, shot in the head. He returns to the soldier, still in the same position oblivious of Jonathan’s presence, and takes the emblematic photograph that will appear on the front of a magazine changing both their lives. Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen, Jonathan turns his back on a career in war photography that had only just begun, taking himself off to Japan in an attempt to lose himself in its foreignness. He takes photographs endlessly – the daily changing view from his apartment window, milling passengers at metro stations – an outsider constantly observing. When he runs out of money he turns to teaching English, meeting Kumiko at the language school and falling in love with her, until a chance encounter brings him face to face with what happened in Vietnam. Running through Jonathan’s story are the reverberations of another war in which both his father and Kumiko’s grandfather fought.

Impossible for those who’ve seen Don McCullin’s striking image Shell Shocked Soldier not to see it as the starting point for this beautifully expressed, impressionistic but powerful novel. Harding hangs her narrative on the framework of the photographs Jonathan selects for his first exhibition interspersing it with memories which illuminate and slowly reveal his life and character. Over it all hangs the shadow of war and its aftermath for those who have witnessed or taken part in it. There’s a quiet elegance about Harding’s writing which vividly conveys Jonathan’s need for anonymity in an attempt to escape the inescapable: the horror of what both he – and his father before him – have seen. The moral ambiguity of war photography is also explored: ‘He has seen, or possibly he has done, whatever it was that put that look into his eyes. Is it necessary that he did it, or was seeing enough? Perhaps seeing is guilt in itself?’ thinks Jonathan when contemplating the photograph of the soldier and, by implication, his own role. It’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as much to admire.