Book Review: ‘The Sympathizer’

After hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at a conference last Spring, I decided I needed to bump his Pulitzer Prize The Sympathizer to the top of my TBR pile. Best decision I’ve made in a long time. And yet…

This isn’t a book I would recommend outright to many readers, because you don’t have to be a ‘sensitive’ reader in order to be devastated by this novel. As you might expect in a book about war and exile, there are so many scenes that are incredibly violent, graphic, crude, and/or disturbing. Nothing in this book is going to give a reader sweet dreams.

But with that disclaimer complete, I’ll say that this book is irresistible. Nguyen’s voice is captivating and sharp, so that even uneventful scenes or extensive monologues will put the reader on edge. I’m not typically one to read war novels or books that are heavy on political theory or philosophizing, but it was that voice that made both tolerable here. Even while reading brief passages about Communist ideology or American policy in Vietnam, I felt as though I was constantly bracing myself for something bad to happen to the characters in the book, which is the ultimate sign of a good thriller. Nguyen’s ability to balance history, philosophy, and politics with character and plot development is incredible. So that no matter what you’re looking for, you get it – almost without realizing it.

Finally, this book is so timely right now, given the United States’ recent decision to pull out of Afghanistan and the events that have unfolded in Kabul since. Some of the scenes I read in Nguyen’s book have uncanny parallels to those I’m seeing in the news, and the implications of American guilt are heavy in both. Nguyen recently wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times discussing these parallels, which I’d highly recommend.

The sequel to The Sympathizer is called The Committed, and I just can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

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