The Collection of Heng Souk by S.R. Wilsher

heng soukWhen Wilsher invited me to review his book, I was immediately intrigued by its concept and setting.  Sun Tieng is a young woman in modern-day Vietnam who confronts her uncle, who was a commander in a Vietnam War prison camp known as “The Citadel.”  At the same time, Thomas Allen in Britain learns he was the son of a soldier who never came home from Vietnam, so he begins to trace his father’s path in Vietnam.

As I know nothing about Vietnam or the war, I can’t critique the history.  What I liked most about this book, however, was the really rich characterization.  The characters of Sun and Thomas, and her uncle and his father, could easily have been stereotypes, but they weren’t.  Sun is struggling with a difficult marriage and she is shocked to find out how little she knows about her uncle.  She gets to know him, in part, by reading the journal of an American soldier during the war.  And as she gets to know her uncle, she gets a better sense of who she is.  Thomas has gone through the death of his child, a bitter divorce, and the recent death of his father, and then he finds out he had a biological father he never knew. I really appreciated the slow growth of these characters during the novel.  I could relate to the longing of Sun and Thomas to know where they came from, and how your family’s experiences shape how you see yourself.

The story kept my attention throughout, whether it was getting to know Thomas during his father’s funeral, Sun dealing with her  husband, or life in a war prison.  There’s a lot going on, but Wilsher keeps the story moving at a nice pace and I always wanted to know what would happen next.  A lot of books that alternate past and present get really bogged down in trying to tell both stories at once, but this book never did.

She thought of him as two separate men now; her uncle, the sick bookkeeper to a gangster, and the monstrous persecutor Heng Souk, as if it was the only way she could justify her continuing to have anything to do with him.

She could not understand why her uncle had allowed her to keep the notebook and was revealing his past in this way, as if he was inviting her to condemn him.

I wouldn’t say this is a subtle book, but it is a look at the complexities of war, and how past actions burden our lives.  Sun’s uncle has had to live with the torture and murder he committed during the war; and yet, the Vietnamese were defending their country.  Heng Souk is a hero to his countrymen but struggles with what he had to do.

There’s an attention to detail in this book I also appreciated.  If Thomas had come to Vietnam and randomly bumped into Sun and her uncle, I would have been annoyed.  Instead, Thomas takes the time to find out which prison most British airmen were sent to, and then he asks around to find out who would be most knowledgeable about the fates of prisoners during the war.  It all happens in a way that makes sense.

This book is pretty violent, as you’d expect from a novel about a prison camp.  I’m sure the torture doesn’t come close to what really happened, so I think Wilsher hits the right note between realism and sparing readers all the gory details.  As in a lot of war fiction, the violence is there for a purpose.  On the flip side, there’s a fair amount of violence in the modern day story as well.  I couldn’t tell if that spoke more to the violence of the justice system in Vietnam, or just the brutality of one character.

If I had a complaint about this book, it’s a really small one, that there were a few too many parallels in Sun and Thomas’ lives.  Both characters have reason to question who their biological fathers are, and it got a little hard to keep track who’s mother did what with whom.

I learned a little about the Vietnam War, although the focus of this story isn’t on the politics or events of the war.  It’s more about the lives of a handful of men caught up on opposing sides, and the lasting impacts on their families.  I do wish Wilsher had included an epilogue telling readers what was historical and what wasn’t.  I couldn’t find anything on the Web about this particular prison camp so I’m assuming it’s a composite of other camps.  But it would be great to know if Wilsher visited Vietnamese prison camps and war museums in writing this book.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to read about the Vietnamese War, or just those interested in history and reading about other countries.  It’s a well-written, thoughtful novel.  To learn more about Wilsher’s work, his website is here.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest reviews.

2 Responses to “The Collection of Heng Souk by S.R. Wilsher”

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