Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2011

The Time in Between (2005), by David Berger

David Berger’sThe Time in Between won the Canadian Giller Prize in 2005, and it’s a captivating book.  I wanted something interesting to read after the disappointment of  The Big Fellow, so I began Brian Castro’s Drift, which I love, but that’s a complex book and not one for bedtime reading.   The Time in Between, however, was ideal.  It is a slow meditation on war and its aftermath, and how different cultures deal with it.

The first part of the novel is framed around Charles Boatman, a Vietnam Veteran who has never come to terms with his wartime experience.  When his children are grown  he comes across a novel about the war by a prize-winning Vietnamese called Dang Tho.  This book introduces him to a Vietnamese perspective and is a catalyst for him to return to Da Nang, but he doesn’t really know what he hopes to find there and there is no resolution for him.  It is heart-rending to read about this sad and lonely man floundering around trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

When he disappears, two of his children go to Vietnam to try to find out what’s happened to him, and they too try to find some sort of reconciliation.  The story focusses mainly on Ada, who meets characters who are emblematic of the new Vietnam: entrepreneurial, energetic, and assertive.  They are not what she expected; they are not focussed on the war.  It is in the past, and it is important to them to move on.  While willing to be helpful to these young people in search of their father, the Vietnamese she meets seem to be a bit tired of melancholy westerners trying to sort out the legacy of their war.

One of the things that struck me when I visited Vietnam was the way in which the Vietnamese have developed a tourism industry for Vietnam Vets who visit to exorcise their demons and yet the Vietnamese themselves have subdued their own enormous losses.  There are some war graves around, but tour guides do not want to talk about them.  The Citadel, (near Hue)  site of the Tet Offensive, where 45,000 Vietnamese lost their lives, is the site of mass graves – but there is nothing there to show that this is so.  Coming from Australia where there is a war memorial in every town and village, and there are large and impressive ones (which a tourist is almost obliged to visit) in every capital city, I found it chastening that there were no visible memorials in any of the Vietnamese cities that we visited on our trip.

Another aspect of Vietnamese life that I later came to understand was that very few of them can indulge an interest in travel.  In 2009-10 my husband and I participated in the ‘Welcome to Melbourne’ program run by the University of Melbourne.  This program links alumni with postgraduate students from overseas as a cultural exchange which also offers the student a bit of ‘home life’ while studying here.  It was our privilege to meet a young student from Hanoi and he became a member of our family while he was here – we were his ‘parents’ at his graduation, because of course his parents could not afford to come.   What we discovered, to our embarrassment when we proudly shared our photos of our trip to Vietnam, was that we had seen more of his country than he had.  So it is for most Vietnamese, and there is little prospect of making a pilgrimage to the place where a loved one died.  Just as the distance and expense of a visit to the burial-place of a loved one in Europe was an impossibility for the Australian bereaved after World War I, so it is for Vietnamese within their own country.

These realities inform the book though the author isn’t heavy-handed about it.  Ada, a lost soul if ever there was one, develops a curious passion for Vu, an artist twice her age.  Seeking him, after he has vanished out of her life, she visits Quoc, not Vu’s brother as in her ignorance of Vietnamese culture she had thought, but a ‘brother in a general way’.  She tries to tease out the impact of Dang Tho’s book on her father, but receives this rebuke:

Dang Tho was awarded a prize in 1991 for his novel about the war. Many famous writers have honoured him.  My feeling is that Dang Tho is perhaps a talented writer but he did not represent the reality of the war.  People died but not in the depressing way that is shown in the novel.  The war was very long and the cost was great.  Three million people were killed.  There were thirty thousand Vietnamese missing in action.  Two million people were wounded.  One million women became widows.  Millions of mothers lost their sons.  Five large cities were thoroughly destroyed….The sorrow depicted in Dang Tho’s book is right.  Of course, we see that sorrow.  However, the writer didn’t show the reasons why the sorrow took place.  It was Americans who invaded Vietnam.  It was not our desire to fight. (p221)

The author seems to be saying that in a very poor country where the struggle to survive is an all-encompassing preoccupation, the past – and one man’s death in particular – should be kept in perspective even though it’s important to family members.  Vietnam is not another India where in the 1970s lost souls went to flirt with Buddhism and ‘find themselves’.  The ‘answers’ – if there ever are any – are not in any particular place.  Just as Charles realised that the absolution he craved could not be given him,  Ada eventually realises that her time in Vietnam is a ‘time in between’ , a ‘voyage out and back…a dream’. (p231) She needs to go back to Canada to make a ‘real’ life for herself again.

It’s a thought-provoking book.

Author: David Bergen
Title: The Time in Between
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920769833
Source: Personal library

Availability: it seems to be out of print.   My copy was published by Scribe and I bought it locally but it’s no longer available at Readings.  Aussie buyers try Booko …


  1. […] or not, with excellent Giller coverage over at Kevin from Canada, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog reviews the 2005 Giller Prize winner: The Time in Between by David […]


  2. […] 2005: The Time in Between by David Bergen, see my review […]


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