St. Martin’s Press (2010)
Trade Paperback 400 pgs.
4 1/2 Stars
Blood had been shed by one side; blood had been shed by the other. What did it mean?
This harrowing account of three photographers in Vietnam starts at the end of the war. Who can forget the accounts of the gates in Saigon with American soldiers on one side and the Vietnamese people on the other? The war stricken people struggling to get through to their last shred of safety as guards forced them back. They watched the Americans fly away, abandoning them to their fate. It gave me an unpleasant jolt at what was not our country’s finest hour.
There is nothing political here, however. This is the story of how war affects real people. There is no talk of honor, high ideals, or making the world safe for democracy. Here the Vietnamese people and American soldiers alike scramble for survival with odds in no one’s favor.
Helen makes her way to Vietnam after the death of her brother two years earlier. She seeks many things; resolution for his death, a respite from boredom and a deep feeling of personal failure, and to photograph the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There she meets the legendary photographer Sam Darrow and the two begin an affair. Darrow is addicted to the adrenaline rush of war and violence, something I would have never understood before seeing The Hurt Locker. Helen develops the same fascination and is compelled to risk her life in alarming ways as she strives to get the “perfect shot”. Mental self protection required a growing apathy towards the sufferings of others but in doing so damaged her ability to rejoin regular society. The normal routines of everyday life lacked the stimulation of danger and therefore seemed colorless and artificial. Like Darrow, the only real life is war.
The cool thing for us is that when this war’s done, there’s always another. (Sam Darrow)
Linh is the regular guy, a Vietnamese poet and playwriter first turned soldier, then Darrow’s assistant, and finally a photographer in his own right. He also occasionally gave information to the other side but was never seen as a traitor even by friends who suspected the truth. Linh was my favorite character and the one I had the most sympathy for. He honestly didn’t know what side was best, though he remained loyal to Darrow and Helen, whom he once saved by his inside knowledge. He toyed with the idea that who won didn’t matter, as long as the killing stopped and his country was given the chance to heal. I never cared for Darrow, I liked Helen better after she experienced some growth, and I was rooting for Linh all the way.
This was a tough book to read. Horrific acts of treachery and betrayal on both sides peppered the story and corruption is rampant. The pictures taken and sent back to Life or Times for poignant sympathy were shockingly exploitive when taken. But glimmers of humanity amidst brutal atrocities and the stubborn pursuit to find meaning where none exists is what makes this book a real knockout. Soli has extraordinary storytelling skills.
Take care when reading this book. War really is Hell.
“What was the point of it?” the girl yelled….. Helen stopped, unable to think. No one had ever asked her the question before.