Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2016

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen #BookReview

The SympathizerIn the 1980s and 90s I discovered some great new (to me) women writers through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, and Beloved by Toni Morrison; also A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx; and The Stone Diaries by Carol Fields.  Looking through the list of winners I see that I missed some great names in fiction by mostly reading women authors in those years: I didn’t read Thomas Pynchon or John Updike, for example, and I still haven’t.  I broadened my tastes after that and discovered Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Known World by Edward P Jones as well as Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and of course March by our very own Aussie Geraldine Brooks. But then came The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; Tinkers by Paul Harding and A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, and I disliked all these books so much that I didn’t finish any of them and threw the baby out with the bathwater by ignoring the Pulitzer Prize from then onwards.

The Sympathizer by debut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, broke through that self-imposed barrier because of its subject matter (which I read about in Readings Monthly).  I was intrigued by its story of a US-educated Vietnamese Communist mole,  who – at the time that the story begins in 1975 – is working undercover as an aide to a General in the South Vietnamese army.  So at the iconic moment when the Viet Cong tank broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace, the unnamed narrator of the novel is privately celebrating along with the victors, even as he joins the flood of refugees in the chaotic helicopter evacuation out of Saigon.  Amongst refugees suddenly reduced in status in the US, where he sends covert reports back to his ‘aunt’ in Paris, his political sympathies lie elsewhere.

This novel is about many things: the immigrant experience in America; the contradictions of American life; and the impact of US foreign policy and its wars on the lives of others.  Through the narrative technique of the written ‘confession’ made to the Vietnamese Commander, it also reveals divided loyalties; the duality of human nature; and the longing for home, love and family.  All this is leavened by delicious irony and stunning prose:

The grand opening began later that afternoon, the General shaking hands with well-wishers while chatting easily and smiling incessantly.  Like a shark who must keep swimming to live, a politician – which was what the General had become – had to keep his lips constantly moving.  The constituents, in this case, were old colleagues, followers, soldiers, and friends, a platoon of thirty or so middle-aged men whom I had rarely encountered without their uniforms until our time in the refugee camps on Guam.  Seeing them again in mufti, a year later, confirmed the verdict of defeat and showed these men now to be guilty of numerous sartorial misdemeanours.  They squeaked around the store in bargain-basement penny loafers and creased budget khakis, or in ill-fitting suits advertised by wholesalers for the price of buy-one-get-one-free.  Ties, handkerchiefs, and socks were thrown in, though what was really needed was cologne, even of the gigolo kind, anything to mask the olfactory evidence of their having been gleefully skunked by history.  As for me, even though I was of lesser rank than most of these men, I was better dressed, thanks to Professor Hammer’s hand-me-downs.  With just a bit of tailoring, his blue blazer with gold buttons and his grey flannel slacks fit me perfectly.

Thus smartly dressed, I made my way through the men, all of whom I knew in my capacity as the General’s aide.  Many once commanded artillery batteries and infantry battalions, but now they possessed nothing more dangerous than their pride, their halitosis, and their car keys.  I had reported all the gossip about these vanquished soldiers to Paris, and knew what they did (or, in many cases, did not do) for a living.  Most successful was a general famous for using his crack troops to harvest cinnamon, whose circulation he monopolised; now this spice merchant lorded over a pizza parlour.   (p.87-8)

The narrator goes on to list the mundane options taken up by these refugees, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile while the reader adjusts her ideas about successful integration into the host economy.  It made me remember the Vietnamese family I knew when teaching in Springvale: both parents had been professionals but in Australia they were working in the local car factory, pinning their hopes on their daughter’s education to restore their position in society and their self-esteem.  It did not occur to me then that they might be resentful of her quick mastery of English and her acquisition of confident feminist attitudes towards the inherent superiority of men.  Nguyen is masterful at depicting the quandary of such refugees, cheerfully undercutting the narrator’s sympathies with arch commentary about how their memories had been laundered so thoroughly by nostalgia.

The narrator himself has the memories which shaped him.  Born into grinding poverty in Northern Vietnam, he is the unacknowledged son of the Catholic priest who seduced his mother.  At critical times in his subsequent life, he remembers her advice to him when he came home sobbing after yet another example of the discrimination against mixed race children, of whom there were enough since the arrival of the GIs, to form a nation.  He was not half of anything, she said, he was twice as good…

He needs all his reserves of courage when he surrenders to a bond forged in his youth with Bon and Man.  Each bears a livid scar on his hand, an emblem of the day they became blood-brothers.  When Bon, devastated by the loss of his wife and child on the tarmac of their escape, decides to return to Vietnam in a guerrilla group with fanciful dreams of liberating the country from the Communists, the narrator goes with him, to protect him from his suicidal wishes.  But as we know from the first lines on the novel, the narrator is captured and required to give an account of himself.  His ‘confession’ inevitably betrays the signs of Americanisation and his captors turn the tables on him, using the very techniques of ‘soft’ torture that he had learned when in training.  It’s harrowing reading.

The Sympathizer is a terrific book that held my attention throughout.  Highly recommended.

Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Title: The Sympathizer
Publisher: Corsair, 2016
ISBN: 9781472151360
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.99

Fishpond: The Sympathizer.  BTW prices vary widely, this UK Corsair edition is noticeably cheapest.  It’s $18.13 at Fishpond compared to nearly $30 for a different edition.  (And this one has a better cover design.)



  1. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Tinkers. I still have some of the images from this book seared into my mind (in a good way!)
    I agree the Goon Squad was a bit hit and miss though.

    I visited Vietnam last year and hope to get to this book soon. I can also recommend last year’s Pulitzer fiction winner – All the Light We Cannot See.

  2. It makes a difference when you’ve visited the country and see things differently, doesn’t it?
    I have All the Light We Cannot See on the TBR, and will get to it in due course – though I’ve seen some commentary from people who loathed it, so we shall see, eh?
    I see from the early tweets about the MF shortlist that I am out of step with the judges of that prize too….

  3. I find books that win prizes a bit hit and miss too but this one sounds excellent and my library has a copy – yay. I can also vouch for All The Light We Cannot See.

    • Talking of hit-and-miss, what do you think of the MF shortlist? No bets on which one will win it…

  4. As a dropout I know a lot about the expectations of parents, but it hadn’t occurred to me to think about parents resentful of their child’s success. On the topic of refugees (and the MF shortlist) I’m reading Black Rock White City right now and the shitty lives we give the refugees we let in, let alone the ones we don’t, is amongst other things, a terrible waste.

    • It’s clearer in the book than in my post that parents find themselves torn. Of course they want their kids to succeed and are proud of them when they do, but you don’t have to be a refugee to discover the painful gulf that arises when the offspring move in different, alienating circles because they have done the very thing you wanted them to do. Dickens showed us that in Great Expectations, but he I think was less honest about the inevitable resentment. You’d have to be a saint not to be embarrassed by having your kids translate for you, or to realise that with shabby clothes and housing, that your offspring might not want their new friends and associates to know too much about you, and that nobody wants to hear your stories from your old life when you were a high achiever, in a cause that no one wants to hear about because the war was lost.
      Agreed about Black Rock White City. My pick (of the shortlist) to win but by the look of what’s in and what’s out of the five, I doubt that the judges will be brave enough to override the gender politics …

      • Thanks Lisa, you always take a lot of trouble with your answers. I guess there are plenty of stories where kids are embarrassed at having to translate for their parents (indigenous as well as migrant). Then again, I sometimes live down to my own kids’ expectations for the pleasure of embarrassing them, but I’m proud of them really.

        • *chuckle* I like that… living down to their expectations… I’m sure I’ve caught my Offspring heaving a patient sigh too…

  5. As they say, never throw the baby out with the bath water! I’m always a little cautious about the Pulitzer – I’m not sure why because they have had some great winners over the years, but cant help feeling cautious about the Pulitzer. I have to say thought that I loved The road! Such spare writing, so evocative, so elemental. I have Tinkers here, but haven’t read it, nor did I read The goon squad.

    • Well, we share caution:)
      I was supposed to read The Road for a book group but LOL the only thing it evoked for me was a sense of profound irritation. But Middlesex was a book that changed my understanding of things, and I’ll never forget The Known World. And The Stone Diaries was brilliant.

  6. I’ve only read a few of them – I’m not surprised Ghost River and The Hand didn’t make the short list – I did really enjoy them both but don’t think they are prize winners. Charlotte Wood deserves to be there. Of the ones that I haven’t read, the ones I am most interested in are Salt Creek and Black Rock White City. Not having read them, I don’t know if they are worthy. What would your short list look like Lisa?

    • Well, we rarely disagree, but I think The Hands is an outstanding book, and I think that The Natural Way of Things is a bit of a read-it-once-wonder that won’t stand up to the test of time.
      Hmm, my shortlist. Well, for a start, I would have Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses, Quicksand by Steve Toltz and Jenny Ackland’s The Secret Son on the longlist, and I wouldn’t have had Hope Farm or The World Without Us on it in the first place.
      And then I would be in a real pickle because it would be even harder to come up with a shortlist…

  7. You have read some of my favorite American writers. Have you tried Shirley Jackson? I haven’t read Pynchon either, but a lot of Updike. I recommend starting with one of his early books, Rabbit Run.

    • No… what should I read by Shirley Jackson? I looked her up on Goodreads and there’s a lot to choose from!
      I’ve got two of the Rabbit series on my TBR and the others on my wishlist, probably because they’re listed in 1001 Books, so yes, I will certainly read him… and Pynchon too, I bought a couple of his when *happy dance* Vintage was having a $12 sale!

      • There are four Rabbit books (some say five), but I say begin at the beginning with Rabbit Run. Almost anything by Shirley Jackson, but I particularly like We Have Always Lived at the Castle. For humor, Life with the Savages.

        • Ok, will begin with Rabbit Run, and will add the Jacksons to my wishlist at Goodreads!

        • PS Now that I look at Jackson’s list of books at Goodreads, I am *sure* I have read The Lottery, but I haven’t recorded when or how. I suspect I read it online…

      • Definitely need to start with The Haunting of Hill House. It’s her most famous. Then people typically move on to We Have Always Lived in a Castle. She’s a charming writer whose attitude and personality doesn’t seem to match her stories, which I find funny.

        • I’ll add this one to my wishlist too…thanks

  8. I recall that this book made lots of ‘Best of’ lists in 2015 – I hadn’t heard of it until I compiled my ‘List of Best of Lists’!

    I’ve read a number of Pulitzer winners, most recently The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See, both of which I loved (although I read both before they won). As far as the Pulitzer goes, I still haven’t quite forgiven the judges for not awarding a prize one year (2011??) – can you imagine how ripped off the short-listed authors felt?!

    • Wouldn’t it be fun to be a fly on the wall eavesdropping on the judges’ reasons for that!

  9. Lisa, I will love you to the end of time for that mention of my book in that way. Thank you.

    • *chuckle* And don’t forget that I am never *nice* about the books I review here, only 100% honest.

      • Oh, I know. You are resoundingly clear on that point! But seriously: thanks.

  10. My word, the prose was absolutely incredible. I haven’t come across such vivid, almost visceral, imagery for a long time. And the last bit was particularly haunting. Almost a cross between 1984 and ‘Wizard of the Crow’.

  11. […] 6. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnamese/American) First novel. See my review. […]

  12. […] ANZ LitLovers review […]

  13. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this novel. […]

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