The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I had no idea what to expect when I started reading The Sympathizer, the debut novel and 2016 Pulitzer winner from author Viet Thanh Nguyen. As the pages flew by, I realized that it had been an incredibly long time since a book had enraptured me in such a complete manner.
Nguyen was born in Vietnam. His parents, affected by the division of the country in the 1950’s, fled to the south when the north fell under Communist control. When Nguyen was 4 years old, his family fled Vietnam to the United States as southern Vietnam succumbed to the Communist movement. The experiences Nguyen and his family lived through as refugees resonate throughout the novel, and for those interested there is a fantastic interview with Nguyen archived on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ website that provides more of the author’s insight in inspiration.
Our narrator throughout this existential, philosophical, bloody thriller is a double-agent, who presents his tale of flight from Vietnam to survival in the United States in the form of a confession.
Recounting his life and lessons learned, the narrator confronts the various contributors to his self-identity. As a double-agent and the ‘bastard’ son of a French priest and Vietnamese mother who had previously studied in the United States, he can best be described as a human dichotomy. His numerous dualities present a sort of existential luxury in that he can be what he needs to be for whoever is asking, whether it’s the CIA, or a Hollywood filmmaker, or his Communist handlers. But, he starts to see that he is actually only what others want him to be. No matter how he might try, he will only be seen and valued in the way others want to see him, not necessarily as he would like them to.
Shining brightly against the darker backdrop of The Sympathizer are stunningly clear moments of humor. I found myself laughing audibly, and in doing so more clearly defining my own sense of humor in the process. It’s not that the subject matter is light, but the circumstances Nguyen describes were at times hilarious. This was both unexpected and highly enjoyable.
The Sympathizer is a thriller, yes. It’s a reflection on self-identity and American culture, also yes. But it can’t and shouldn’t really be pigeon-holed, so instead, I’ll just say it’s one of the best books I've encountered and plan to read again many times.
Review by Joel
$16.00 Trade Paperback
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