A Bend in The River by Libby Fischer Hellman, due out 7 October, 2020
Two sisters, Mai and Tam, 14 and 17, are propelled from their village into Saigon after their family is massacred during what the Vietnamese call the American War. They take very different paths through the last five years of the war and are both forced to find a way out when the North Vietnamese win.
What I liked most about the book was its pace. I found myself reading much more per session than I’d intended to and, even if each chapter didn’t end on cliff-hanger, I cared enough about Mai and Tam to keep reading. The sisters’ mutual dependence and their arguments, which is central to the plot, were also a strong point. They spend most of the action separated: this is the type of bust-up that has to be understated, and the author pulls it off with aplomb.
I enjoyed the subsidiary characters, the kind Co Thac and mysterious and faintly sinister Dr. Hang. And the brutality of the war – on all sides – was well depicted without being gratuitous. I loved the way the intrigues played out, the way in which you never quite knew who you could trust and who you couldn’t, the confusion and disorientation that brings.
Where the book fell down was on the tiny details of Vietnam in the early 1970s. As the author says in her notes, although it may be presumptuous of an American to write of the war through the eyes of Vietnamese girls, it is equally important to give a voice to those who were caught up in that war. But, to be fully convincing, the details matter.
The book starts in March and “the hottest part of the year was approaching” but, in Vietnam and throughout Indochina, March is already well into the hottest part of the year (the monsoon normally hits in late May or June and cools things down). The sisters have an “unplanned” brother – but family planning was a non-concept fifty years ago in Indochina. They later pick up and eat a jackfruit as if it were an orange: a jackfruit weighs three to twenty pounds and has a hard, armoured skin with spikes. You cannot open one without a knife and can barely pick one up without gloves. Later on, Mai acquires a scooter, yet scooters were a luxury item back then, and it’s not at all clear where she found the means to acquire one.
I also felt there was some lazy writing where it most needed to be vigorous: bringing Saigon to life. “Inside [the market], over a hundred stalls exploded with sights, sounds, colours, and scents.” “Exploded” is a cliché – and a somewhat dubious one in a war book – but the author does not show us those sights, sounds, colours and scents. Contrast this with the detailed description of Dr. Hang’s apartment at the beginning of Chapter 16
The sofa was soft and velvety. The walls were covered with light gray wallpaper woven through with shiny silver branches and leaves. Silk, she thought. A low table with a glass surface and a polished wood base sat in front of the sofa. Two upright chairs, also polished wood flanked it. Gold sconces with white tapered candles hung from the walls. Light grey curtains that matched the wallpaper filtered the light but didn’t keep it out, and a thick oriental carpet in the middle of the room picked up those colours and more. The portion of the floor not covered by the carpet looked to be marble. Fresh flowers with white, yellow, pink and blue blossoms were arranged in vases.
A marvellous description – but for a room that, to most readers, is already of a known type. The market, which is outside many readers’ experience and which forms an important part of the narrative, is a blank space by comparison. And other nice touches, such as Tam’s car-tyre sandals, show that the author can bring scenes to life.
A Bend in The River is an ambitious book and one that fills a lacuna. The above minor gripes aside, it is well written and moves at a cracking pace: well worth the read.