The Trader of Saigon – Lucy Cruickshanks

I was going to start something new this week and do a mid-week selection of mini reviews, as I have realised that I have a mountain of books I have read this year and might not end up reviewing until 2014. The first of which was going to be some of the Not The Booker Prize shortlisted books. There need be no secret on my thoughts on these as it went live over the interweb last week. However, as on said day, I had dragged myself out of my sick bed to do that and so didn’t think I was as eloquent as I would have liked. So I thought I should give them each, maybe bar one, a review here and try and sound a little more compos mentis. Plus the Not The Booker helped me discover some great ‘new to me’ authors and I would like to pass some of them onto you. Starting with Lucy Cruickshanks…

Heron Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Trader of Saigon’ is a tale of three people all in Vietnam in the 1980’s shadow of post war. Phuc is a business man who has fallen on hard times and with a family to feed resorts to desperate measures in his hope to save them. Hanh is a young woman who is working in order to keep herself and her ill mother barely away from starvation by working at the street toilets where her manager sits opposite constantly drinking yet claiming he can never pay her wage. Alexander is a US army deserter who now deals in women, that’s right, he deals in snatching and selling women. Cruickshanks weaves their story together though, obviously, if you want to know how you need to read the book.

There was much that impressed me with this debut novel. Firstly I liked the fact that whilst the book was set in Vietnam you knew where you were without having the author having to spoon feed you. It wasn’t smacking you over the head all the time (because this isn’t a history text book, it’s a novel), it simmered in the background. It was the same with the war, it didn’t get mentioned all the time yet was the cause for why everyone was in the situation they were in after all – again the scenes with Alexander at war I found very atmospheric and vivid. It didn’t need a lot of show and tell I didn’t think, and actually made me want to go away and find out more about the war as I realised I have very little knowledge of it shamefully.

At the start of the book I was a little concerned that I wasn’t going to get into the heads of any of the characters. Just as I felt I was getting to know either Alexander, Hanh or Phuc we would suddenly be thrown into the others narration. I also couldn’t quite work out what the book was trying to do, was it wanting to be a thriller or was it trying to be a literary novel? As I read on I realised it was aiming for both and that I myself was desperately trying to second guess what the novel was rather than just get lost in it. My fault more than the book itself!

Yet the more I read the more the characters became defined and Alexander started to really intrigue me. Note; if any of you who have read it, please explain the baby in the formaldehyde he carried around, I was a bit puzzled whilst also being oddly fascinated. He is really a bit of a bastard and I worried he would thaw and fall in love with Hanh (not really a spoiler, it is laid on a bit thick this might happen from the off) and for a period of time it looked that way but then Cruickshanks pleasantly surprised me by not doing that at all. I would have liked more psycho-Alexander though and his back story, but maybe that says more about me and my taste for the darkest aspects of fiction.

However she did make Alexander switch quite a lot for the purpose of the plot rather than letting the character lead the narrative, I thought, and Alexander was the most fascinating character for me out of the lot, especially at his most repugnant. I must admit I was secretly hoping he was going to become a fully blown psychopath after hints of his youth in America and behaviour during the war in Vietman, it wasn’t do be but I did find him rather fascinating. I did also have this huge worry, especially after the Phuc gambling incident you describe, that the book was going to become a huge cliché. It never does but I would say that towards the end almost too much happens and as it went on I found I was a bit confused with all the sudden high drama, but hey it was the denouement, it was going to be dramatic wasn’t it?

Overall though I found ‘The Trader of Saigon’ to be an interesting and enlightening read and one which ultimately combines a sense of literary with thriller to great effect. It is one of those books that gives you a peek into another place, time and culture and leaves you wanting to rush off and find out more about it. I know that Lucy is currently working on her second book at the moment and I will be one of the first in the queue to see what she does next as this book shows so much promise for the future of an author to keep your eyes on.

I should add here that I have been slightly lazy (though not ridiculously so as I have extended and expanded on quite a lot) and tweaked, not twerked, my thoughts from the Guardian website. Just so you know. Have any of you read ‘The Trader of Saigon’? What are your thoughts on the new genre of ‘literary thriller’ if such a thing exists? And if it does are there any you would recommend?

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Filed under Heron Books, Lucy Cruickshanks, Not The Booker Prize, Review

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