REVIEW: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

July 29, 2016

 

SYNOPSIS: The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.

 

GENRE: Fiction, Historical, War

 

FORMAT: Audiobook

 

RATING: ★★☆☆☆ / 2 painfully over-metaphored (if that's not a word then it should be just to describe this book) stars.

 

REVIEW: Where to start? I actually gave myself a week to collect my thoughts after I finished this book so that my review wouldn't be just one long drawn out sentence of frustration. And now that the time has passed, I'm hoping that I can articulate why this Pulitzer Prize winning book was, for me, not a winner.

 

The Sympathizer might just be one of the most overwritten books that I have read in recent years, if not ever. The metaphors and descriptions of absolutely every moment, down to the slightest movement of a finger, likening it to something or other in exceedingly flowery language, had me rolling my eyes far too often. The author took our narrator's thoughts down so many tangential lines that the story became lost. At times I would completely forget where we were supposed to be, where in the timeline our narrator actually was and where he was supposed to be going once we returned from the string of deviations.

 

I did like the beginning, before we become mired in too many words. We begin with strong and intriguing opening statements and thoughts. This leads into action and insight on a tumultuous time. Our nameless narrator is a spy, a double agent. A man of mixed-race and divided mind, we are given history to his birth and ostracism by his own country men as well as others. He feels he never fits in anywhere. But through all of the revelations of his history we are never given the one thing that might make this book or his actions make sense. We never know why he became an infiltrator for the Communist Party. Why does he join? What made him believe? He is clearly torn and tormented throughout the book, at what he must do and who he has become, but his driving force is blank and therefore I could not connect with the book.

 

We're supposed to explore the many themes of war, race, and humanity, but some of the philosophical ramblings seem cliche and others turn glaringly hypocritical. Which is not to say that there isn't anything of worth among the novels exploration of harsh truths and cultural consciousness. But what could have been, was buried under a heavy hand and thus rang false.

 

If I had still been hoping for redemption in my experience from this book, the ending thoroughly killed that hope. When the narrator describes his own birth from his mother's womb, in excruciating detail, as a metaphor for his rebirth into the world, his revelation, his sudden understanding, I wanted to quit. There were a couple chapters left but the use of the oldest, flattest cliche made me want to throw my hands in the air and just stop. It was painful.

 

(I did manage to finish the book)

 

 

After that, and many other instances that I don't mention because of spoilers, I felt like ranting. So I took that week off that I mentioned, and I hope that I was able to provide a clear and comprehensive review.

 

 

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