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The Man From Saigon by Marti Leimbach

The Man From Saigon

by Marti Leimbach

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11629160,166 (3.67)23
"It's 1967, and Susan Gifford is one of the first female correspondents on assignment in Saigon, dedicated to her job and passionately in love with an American TV reporter. Son is a Vietnamese photographer anxious to get his work into the American press. Together they cover every aspect of the war from combat missions to the workings of field hospitals. Then one November morning, narrowly escaping death during an ambush, Susan and Son find themselves the prisoners of three Vietcong soldiers who have been separated from their unit. Now, under constant threat from American air strikes, helpless in the hands of the enemy, they face the daily hardships of the jungle together. As time passes, the bond between Susan and Son deepens, and it becomes increasingly difficult for Son to harbor the secret that could have profound consequences for them both." -- from publisher's website.… (more)



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Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
On one level, the action of the story is simple: there are two journalists (Susan and Son) covering the Vietnam War, and they are captured in the field by a small band of enemy Vietnamese soldiers. The soldiers force the two to march with them through the jungle for days. The book jacket makes it sound like this account of their trek is the main thrust of the story, with the question of whether Susan and Son will survive this ordeal generating suspense. Actually there is no suspense regarding Susan's fate; early in the book -- just two pages after the journalists are captured -- Leimbach lays to rest any questions about Susan:

"Most of [the reporters in Vietnam] who died were shot by accident or tripped a mine, at least before the war moved into Cambodia. Then it all changed. September 1970: twenty-five reporters killed that month alone. By then [Susan] was out of the war. She got a letter from a friend who was still there telling her Kupferberg was dead. Sanchez was dead. Jenkins was missing. Ngoc Kia, dead. She hung up her coat. She sat down on the steps. She thought, Everything in my life is poisoned. She thought, Don't let me go back. But of course she wanted to go back. She would always want to."
(pp. 60-61)
This paragraph reveals two things: first, that Susan survives capture to go back home to America, and second, that the question of her survival is not the point of the story.

Susan's and Son's capture is really just the stage for the heart of the story, which is the war experiences of the characters and their evolving relationships with themselves and with each other. Leimbach tells this level to the story through flashbacks, "memories" that Leimbach has constructed using her extensive research into personal accounts of the Vietnam War. These memories are not retold in chronological order but are scattered throughout the novel and add depth to the story by answering questions like How did the characters get to this point?

Throughout the book, Leimbach reserves the present tense to refer only to the events (including dialogue, descriptions, and actions) relating to Susan's and Son's capture and the jungle trek. The characters' memories are couched in the past tense. A few times I felt that the verb tenses had slipped a little, but it didn't interrupt the flow of the narrative. Leimbach also distinguishes the past from present by putting remembered dialogue from memories in italics, while she relates dialogue in the present situation (capture, forced march, post-capture) with quotation marks. This stylistic choice is very effective. It makes the memories feel dream-like and it emphasizes the subjective nature of the remembered dialogue. Are those the actual words that were said or just the way the character remembers it? Could that memory be contested? Is the character a reliable witness? How have the memories been altered by the character's personality and vested interests?

Leimbach's writing style in this book is perfectly suited for this story. She layers details, dialogue, memories, and internal musings to build a lush description of the jungle that appeals to all the senses: you can hear it, see / smell / feel it, and yes, you can even taste it!

"They walk through a dense stretch of jungle that allows in only the darkest green-hued light. The jungle has a fairy-tale aspect to it, with huge leaves, vines that hang like snakes, tongues of fungus that poke up from the ground. It has a smell, too. Rotting vegetation, stagnant water, hot wet earth. [Susan's] breath feels scorched in her lungs. She takes in the air and it feels empty to her, unable to deliver the oxygen she needs.
(p. 63)
"[Son] leads [Susan] to a shelter, nothing more than a hole in the earth. The entrance requires her to push herself down a vertical shaft no wider than a chimney, arms above her head, wriggling to force herself down, holding her breath, hearing even through the layers of earth the great swells of noise that shake through her as she plunges steeply into what might be anything at all, a man-trap, an underground jail cell, a volcano for all she knows. She doesn't care. Suddenly she drops a foot or more, banging her shoulder and hip, dislodging bits of earth as she moves, scraping her cheek and getting an eyeful of grit. ... She balances on the floor of the shelter, her legs askew, feeling as though she has landed in a wet grave for there is mud and water and slime all around her, oozing into her clothes, squelching between her fingers, coating her knees and elbows, her feet, her hands.
(p. 198)

If these are comma splices or run-on sentences or whatever, it doesn't matter because it works fantastically well. Her descriptions are lyrical which is why they come across as dense but not too thick to sort through; I never felt like skipping to the end of a paragraph just to get through it. She is skillful at generating rhythm in the prose, and the pace always matches the events of the story: more intimate moments have more "beats," while the high-octane scenes move at a clip without losing any richness.

Leimbach frequently engages in "head-hopping," that is, allowing the point-of-view to shift from one character to another within a scene. Unfortunately, I don't believe this is an effective technique. It's the only unforgivable flaw I found in her writing -- I wish she had found a way to progress the story and convey information while maintaining the integrity of the PoV.

Except for that, I truly enjoyed this novel. I even read it through twice and recommend it to friends.
~bint ( )
  bintarab | Sep 4, 2019 |
I was surprised this book was so good. I shed tears at how she ended it. Female war correspondent in Vietnam. It was such a compelling story I told it to my husband over lunch and got choked up. Vietnam in the rearview mirror slowly fading from our collective memory. Atrocities committed, lies told to the American people, and an entire generation who said NO!
Fantastic female protagonist. ( )
  Alphawoman | Jun 27, 2019 |
Leimbach's writing summons the sights, sounds, and smells of Vietnam in an extraordinary way. The way she moves back and forth in time and place makes Son and Susan's time in the jungle interesting rather than tedious. She clearly shows the damage that war does to everyone it touches--the civilians, the combatants, the journalists, members of the medical world. ( )
  eachurch | Sep 2, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A book that gives you the feeling of being there in the war with the female journalist. Susan Gifford. I am strongly reminded of another book printed after this one in 2010, The Lotus Eaters, which seems to have plot similarities to The Man from Saigon, which was printed the year before. Excellent writing, though I would have preferred more dialogue in this book, to break up the long stretches of reported speech, descriptions, and internal dialogue .

I received this book as part of the Early Reviewers program. ( )
  Harvee | Jun 6, 2011 |
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