The daughter of a troubled Vietnam veteran fulfills her late father’s vow to found a center for homeless children in Saigon.
Iris, a Chicago book reviewer, journeys to the metropolis now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City to complete work on the shelter/school/orphanage, set to open in a month. She’s accompanied by former neighbor Noah, an Iraq war veteran maimed by an IED in Baghdad. His mother has begged Iris to take Noah along, hoping the trip will wean him from the heavy drinking mixed with painkillers he relies on to blunt his anger at the pointless conflict that cost him a leg. Thien, a young Vietnamese woman employed by the center, intuits that Noah can best heal by focusing on helping others, and there are certainly plenty of street children who need aid. Sahn, a beat cop who has hated Americans since he fought against them during the war, needles Iris for protection money; he knows that once his failing eyesight is discovered, his policing career will be over. Though Sahn is corrupt, he and Iris cooperate to shelter Tam, a seven-year-old suffering from leukemia. In the novel’s most riveting sections, an abandoned boy and girl, Minh and Mai, have been enslaved by petty gangster Loc, who cut off Minh’s hand to enhance his beggarly appeal. Mai sells fans, and Minh wallops tourists in games of Connect Four; their earnings go directly into Loc’s opium pipe. The rescue of Mai and Minh belatedly transforms the book into a thriller, complete with camera-ready scooter chase scenes, as Noah and Thien pursue Loc. Although Shors (Beside a Burning Sea, 2008, etc.) excels at plotting, and his Saigon street cred is impeccable, the characterization is weak. Thien is impossibly angelic, Noah’s redemption feels forced and Iris quickly fades into the background.
Fictional characters serve mainly as mouthpieces for an admittedly noble mission (portions of the novel’s proceeds will support a Vietnamese children’s foundation); nonfiction might have better served the author’s purpose.