So many parties!

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The American novelist Alice McDermott won the National Book Award for her novel Charming Billy (1997) and she has been a Pulitzer prize finalist three times. She now returns with a dazzling new novel that illuminates the many and varied moral ambiguities of the US’s disastrous attempts to “save” Vietnam from communism.

Absolution opens in 1963, when the twenty-three-year-old Tricia and her husband, Peter, arrive in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the early years of the Vietnam War. Tricia soon meets Charlene, a seasoned corporate wife, who is both “feral and regal”. Charlene is beautiful, clever and controlling, but also deliciously frank and often kind. In a novel of many beautifully drawn characters, Charlene undoubtedly stands out; but it is Tricia – shy, innocent, out of her depth – who narrates most of the events. She has decided to write her story because, sixty years after her sojourn in Vietnam, she has been contacted by Charlene’s daughter. Charlene, we learn, has died, and her daughter is left with questions.

For the young Tricia, Vietnam is an exotic adventure, a “grand fun house”. (She has seen Walter Lang’s film The King and I four times.). She is soon initiated into a world of pretty dresses and afternoons by the pool: “There were so many cocktail parties in those days”. This is a Vietnam that “was nothing at all like what it would become”.

McDermott’s narrative structure allows her to highlight the stark difference between what Tricia saw then and what she now understands. At the time no one mentioned “the distant thudding of artillery we could hear from the other side of the river, even in those days”. The Americans’ lawns “could have been straight out of suburban Westchester”, never mind that the garden walls were crowned by barbed wire. Vietnamese Communists may be “taking potshots at our boys”, but young Tricia feels sure that Peter can understand Vietnam because “he had taken two semesters of world religion at Fordham”.

Yet the older Tricia stresses: “I was walking on air in those days, but I was not an airhead”. Her younger self feels uncomfortable about having a maid, a driver and a gardener, and she sees how “the cocoon in which American dependents dwelled was still polished to a high shine by our sense of ourselves and our great, good nation”. Her friendship with Charlene is uneasy. Charlene wants to help people “born in countries which simply could not measure up”, and she identifies Tricia as “a girl of lesser means who would be reflexively – genetically – disposed to do for her whatever she asked”. Soon Tricia is busy helping Charlene with her prettily arranged “baskets of cheer”.

The distribution of these baskets involves visits to hospitals and eventually to a leper colony outside the city. After this visit, which falls two-thirds of the way through the novel, the narrative thread is taken over by Charlene’s daughter. The reader is initially wrong-footed – who wants to hear about contemporary America rather than 1960s Vietnam? – but it soon becomes clear that the apparent drop in narrative tension is a considered part of McDermott’s pitch-perfect control of pace and revelation. As the daughter’s questions are unwrapped, the darker aspects of Charlene’s “goodness” emerge. In a novel of brilliantly uncomfortable scenes, McDermott saves the best until last.

In the end no one is absolved. The older Tricia suggests that Charlene sought only “inconsequential good”. She also acknowledges that she herself had “no impulse to shout back at the gobbling whirlwind … to do more than [was] reasonable about the chaos in the world”. Yet still the question remains: is a “white saviour” better than no saviour at all? By using the lives of these two women, who are entirely peripheral to the Vietnam War, to illuminate the grubbiness, moral confusion and arrogance of the US approach to Southeast Asia, Alice McDermott also reveals that, while we may be good at looking after our own families, our compassion too often falters when we are faced with the needs of those in the wider world.

Alice Jolly’s novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was runner-up for the Rathbones Folio prize in 2019

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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