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Saigon is yet another masterful epic from the writer who brought us Peking; this time looking at a fifty year period of Vietnam's history that covers the country's colonisation by the French and it's subsequent occupation by the Japanese before finally casting a critical eye over America's involvement in The Vietnamese War and eventual withdrawl. Seen through the eyes of various members of the Sherman family and the people whose lives they encounter, the book is a mammoth of a volume that, once started, is increasingly more and more difficult to put down!
Joseph Sherman is 15 years old when he first visits Vietnam in 1925 on a hunting trip with his family. Together with tracker's son, Paul Devereaux, he finds himself experiencing a rite of passage that sets his roots firmly in this strange and foreign land. It is a hold they both will find difficult to break over the years and that sees them returning to Vietnam, and the Saigon of the book's title, over again and again. The lives of all those they cross likewise become entwined in their lives and the effects of these first encounters the two boys share carries on through several generations of family and conflict. With every stage of Vietnam's history that is further revealed, there is some link to the lives of Joseph Sherman and his family and it is this that makes for such poignant and addictive reading. With as much factual content contained within a fictional portrayal as could possibly be concieved, the book gives a startling, frank and brutally honest account of one country's troubled history and attempts to give a human face to all the tragedy that has surrounded the people of Vietnam. Grey is a master story-teller but far and beyond that, he is an exceptional historian and the imagery his novel provokes stays with the reader long after the book's completion. One scene in paticular, which sees Buddhist monks setting themselves alight in protest of The Vietnamese War and the corrupt and brutal Goverment regime of South Vietnam, will remain firmly in my mind for some time to come and though this book is something of a lengthy read, it is one that rewards all the effort the reader puts in with a tale that really is epic in proportion!
The first one hundred pages or so, I admit, felt a little slow-going for me as they did in fact with Peking, but once I got past this point I found this book impossible to put down! If you have ever wanted to know more of the background behind Vietnam's history, then this is defenitely the book for you. At no time showing any sign of bias, the book tells the story of conflict from all sides of the ongoing war so we get viewpoints from members of The Vietcong as well as American soldiers and a certain member of the CIA related to the family Sherman. In the early days, we see events from the perspective of the occupying French and the British old-school Colonials called in to assist their european allies. And through all this, Joseph Sherman, his sons or his brothers, are all there to record and remember the historical moments that occur.
If you read no other historical novel set in this period and realm, then you really should read this - I cannot recommend it enough. What other book can boast spreading it's plot over a period of fifty years and boast of doing it so successfully? This is one of the most compellling novels I have ever read and is comparable in stature to real-life memoir, Wild Swans, which looked at the modern history of China through Mao Tse Tung's reign from the viewpoint of three generations of one family! Anthony Grey, born in my home town of Norwich, has written numerous other works over the years, many of them focusing on different aspects of The Far East and, after enjoying both this and Peking, I look forward to seeking out more of his writing. He certainly is a writer you don't want to have missed......