This might be the first time ever that I’ve read a Pulitzer Prize winner the year it won! (And I barely made it – I just finished this book last night.) I wanted to read this book because it won the Pulitzer and I was a bit curious. But, because it isn’t really the type of book I’d usually pick up, I put it off. And then a couple of months ago, I picked it up and read the first page in Barnes & Noble, and it had to come home with me. After reading it, I still think it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read – or would want to read, normally – but that’s definitely a good thing.
(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. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.
A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.
I’m still not 100% sure of what I think about this book, but I’m going to try and talk about it anyway. Technically, The Sympathizer is flawless, or nearly so. Even when I felt a little lost (which is quite possibly due to my listening to the audiobook in the car), I couldn’t stop thinking how brilliantly written this book is. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing, and how the book was put together. It’s one of those books that is clearly a work of art, and I really enjoyed that about it.
I also like how the story itself spoke to human nature, specifically, human nature in times of war. I’ve read a lot (both fiction and nonfiction) about WWII and a bit about a few other wars, but nothing about the Vietnam War, so this was new to me, and I thought it was fantastic. I loved getting a small taste of the war itself, but getting more of the aftermath, because that’s what I’m always curious about. I thought Nguyen did a brilliant job of addressing post-war racial relations that was appropriate for the time, but was also relevant today. There were so many times I found myself nodding my head in agreement.
Finally, I loved the way this book explored philosophy and psychology, in terms of larger societies and cultures, as well as individuals and small groups (such as prison guards). It felt so authentic and it was definitely my favorite aspect of the book.
And, lest you think this was my favorite book of all time, there were a few things that prevented this from being a five-star book for me. I wish the events of the story had been a bit more connected. There were times where I didn’t quite get where the story was going, and I wanted to get back to other plot lines. After finishing the book, I see how everything served it’s purpose, but, while I was reading, the narrative did lose me a bit.
Overall, I think I liked this book. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and it was completely unlike anything I’ve ever read, but it definitely influenced me as a writer and a reader. It is definitely a piece of art, and I think it’s definitely a valuable and impactful example of historical fiction and modern literature.
Have you read The Sympathizer? Are you planing to? And can you recommend any similar books?