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Book Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press (2015)

Author Viet Than Nguyen's debut novel, The Sympathizer. The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Photo by Parker Crook/SAIT Polytechnic)

Author Viet Than Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer. The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Photo by Parker Crook/SAIT Polytechnic)

The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen’s debut novel, originally published in April 2015, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and after reading the novel, it’s easy to see why.

Starting off at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and the fall —or liberation, depending on perspective— of Saigon, the novel follows a communist sleeper cell, employed by the South Vietnamese army.

the novel largely takes place in California, and follows the colourful, and often unlikable, protagonist. He’s a womanizer, an alcoholic and a murderer, though you can’t help but feel sorry for him at various points throughout the novel.

Told from the protagonist’s point of view, The Sympathizer is written in the form of a confession — a common practice among the North Vietnamese after the war, where the Vietnamese would repent their “sins against the government,” in the form of a written confession.

While The Sympathizer is a truly unique and captivating read, calling it an easy novel to pick up would be a stretch.

Without an immense background in English literature, it can be difficult to keep up with Nguyen, who is an English, American studies, and ethnicity professor at the University of Southern California.

Born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam, in 1971, Nguyen was a small child when he and his family fled to the United States, around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Raised largely in the USA, it’s easy to see a parallel between Nguyen’s life and the novel’s protagonist, who spent time studying in an American university.

Though, in a book talk at Politics and Prose in Washington D.C., Nguyen stated the views of the protagonist are not necessarily his own.

After the release of his highly successful first novel, Nguyen wrote a non-fiction book titled, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.

While The Sympathizer may not be the easiest of reads, it certainly is a fantastic novel that is worth picking up, and is more than worthy of its Pulitzer Prize.

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