The Chancellor had pointed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer to me on one of our weekly library jaunts, and the premise sounded interesting. I’ve been in the process of reading more contemporary Anglophone fiction, particularly in developing my own reading base and curriculum. I was interested in this novel, because it examined the Vietnam War from a different angle.
The novel focuses on a Communist sleeper agent who is fronting as a good Vietnamese captain during the Vietnam War. His mentor, a general of the South Vietnamese army, is drawing up a list of people whom they will evacuate from Vietnam and bring to Los Angeles. The captain works feverishly to maintain his front, while at the same time remain faithful to his comrades in the Party. Yet his duality comes at a high price–to protect the ones he loves, he endangers his mission, and his need to preserve his front and remain faithful to his mission means sacrificing innocent lives.
The premise is terrific, and the initial narrative structure is engaging. So I have to confess deep disappointment in the novel overall. The plot takes a really strange direction in the last 150 pages, and I had to read several times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Beyond that, the novel drag.ged.on.for.ever. after that last twist. I think some careful editing could have trimmed the plot down and made it tighter. I also did not find the love story convincing or compelling enough to provide character tension. I had high hopes for this novel, and while I did not care for it, I believe Nguyen has talent enough to develop an interesting and nuanced body of work.