Novel Without a Name is the second read for this year’s Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline. It is the first book I’ve read about the Vietnam War that is written by a woman and that describes the war from a North Vietnamese point of view. North Vietnam won the war, but can the soldiers who are actively fighting ever be winners? I don’t think so, and Novel Without a Name is yet another book that supports my opinion.
At the center of this novel is 28-year-old Quan who has been fighting for the Communist cause for 10 years. Most of the time, he and his soldiers live in horrible conditions—without medicine to treat the wounded, forced to hunt orangutans because they have no other meat to eat, and constantly afraid that the person next to you is a spy willing to sell you out. After one successful mission, Quan gets the chance to visit his home. The journey is arduous and, not surprisingly, seeing his family, his neighbors, and his town stirs up memories. Ultimately, Quan has to confront the fact that the world of his childhood no longer exists. Being on the winning side of the war makes no difference when boyhood friends are dead, his childhood sweetheart has irreversibly changed, and corruption has turned neighbors into enemies.
There is no question that this is an exceptionally well-written book. You can tell that the author knows what she’s talking about; Huong volunteered for the war and served at the front both during the Vietnam War and when China attacked Vietnam 1979. With just a few words, she can bring characters to life, be they innocent or cunning. They often disappear just as quickly, which was a very sad reminder of how easily, deeply, and sudden life changes during a war—over and over and over again.
While the book did not quite have the emotional impact I had expected, I was impressed by the stark difference between the horror and the beauty of it. Most western views of the Vietnam War describe muck and mud and threatening jungles. There is plenty of that in this novel as well, but it is intertwined with a palpable nostalgia for how beautiful the land used to be. While Quan realizes that a people and a way of life have irrevocably changed over a decade of war, oddly enough, I didn’t find this book as depressing as other war novels. The only explanation I have for that is that the love of place shines through on almost every page. And that makes this book worth reading.