A Canadian soldier’s return to Vietnam 30 years after the war sends powerful ripple effects throughout several lives, in Winnipeg author Bergen’s moving fifth novel.
A brief prologue locates Charles Boatman’s adult daughter Ada and her younger brother Jon in Danang, seeking Charles, who has disappeared. Bergen then juxtaposes multiple stories. We learn of Charles’s youth in Washington state, years of marriage and fatherhood in British Columbia and separate traumatic experiences in combat halfway around the world, and back home, where he’s confronted by his wife Sara’s infidelity, and her early death. Then, as he seeks the past in postwar Vietnam (“thinking . . . he might conclude an event in his life that had consumed and shaped him”), Charles finds only piercing echoes of the violence he had both suffered and perpetrated, with sadly foreseeable results. A parallel narrative follows Ada’s travels and discoveries (with and without Jon) as she follows her father’s gradually fading trail, dodges the attentions of a 14-year-old hustler-entrepeneur (Yen) who appoints himself her guide and guardian, and falls into a subdued sexual relationship with a middle-aged artist (Hoang Vu) who seems as perplexed by her obsession with him as does Ada herself (“Perhaps he was the country, or her father, or simply a notion of the country, or a notion of her father”). Bergen presents “the sorrow of war” as an exfoliating fog that grips and obscures all the war’s victims—on the battlefield, in shared memories and in dreams filled with disturbing indigenous images. And, in excerpts from a combat novel written by a former North Vietnamese soldier—in which Charles (who reads it) finds his own sins and sorrows mirrored—the unity of human suffering is made stunningly, heartbreakingly clear.
A beautifully composed, unflinching and harrowing story. Perhaps the best fiction yet to confront and comprehend the legacy of Vietnam.