Review: The Sympathizer

20 February 2017

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Five star review – easily worth the praise and prizes.


The Sympathizer (Grove Press) was the book I chose when on a birthday book-token jolly in Kemptown Bookshop. It was a very good choice. The writing is lucid and elegant, calm. But there is, just underneath that calm, what sounded to me like a howl. It was the kind of howl that brought Catch 22 (another favourite of mine) to mind. Partly because both deal with the absurdities and the devastations of war and both are darkly funny. But also because of the subtle manner in which the humour shifts back and forth, becoming absurdity or despair in such a subtle transition that you are tripped up, your own laughter seeming suddenly to be misplaced, gauche.

One of the things I most enjoyed was a sense of there being many dualities. But dualities that shifted, blended and flipped. The narrator is himself half Vietnamese and half French, a state that causes him to be only partially welcome in either sphere. He is also a deeply embedded spy, so his role is dual. These characteristics work well as a backdrop for the book’s exploration of life as a refugee – a further duality, a state of being caught in between. This folds back to further reflection on img_2722the narrator’s ambiguous acceptance in his country of birth.

There was too a shift between the culpabilities of the state in general and, in waging war at all in Vietnam, the culpability of The States specifically. To make refugees, then denigrate them as Boat People, to unwillingly accept their presence, these dual hypocrisies are still so pertinent.

As well as these fascinating explorations of states of being, in both political and heartfelt iterations, it is a gripping story of espionage and action. I highly recommend it.

It continues to live in my thoughts, I come back to mull over themes and ideas that it awoke in me. I can’t ask more of a book than that.

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