Book review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

JOEL KEMEGUE, Evergreen mint editor

“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen is just fantastic fiction and easily one of my favorite books of all time. It’s thriller, spy, action, romance, war and a hint of Orwell all in one. 

The novel is framed as the confession of an unnamed spy in a North Vietnamese prison, but here’s the kick: the narrator worked for North Vietnam. In fact, he served as a spy in the South Vietnamese army, and after Saigon falls to the North and the South Vietnamese have to take home in America, the narrator details how he continued to spy for North Vietnam in this growing Vietnamese community in Los Angeles.

So then why is he in a North Vietnam prison?

Most of the book is about the narrator and the other immigrants struggling to adjust to life in America and planning out how they’re going to take back the country, while the narrator continues spying and even has to turn on friends he’s made in the community. 

The book really goes in-depth with this community struggling to adapt to a completely new culture and how they themselves are viewed in this culture. One character goes from being a wealthy and well-respected general to the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant, planning a comeback the narrator believes is destined to fail. There’s another from a soldier ready to die for his country to a man with nothing to live for, miserable and without motivation in America.

One of my favorite sections is when the narrator travels to the Philippines to consult on a movie about Vietnam, and quickly comes into conflict with the director’s “artistic vision” and how he portrays the country. The whole section is a commentary on how the U.S. views the East and their role in the Vietnam War. Not to give too much away, but it’s a Hollywood film about Americans in another country so you can guess how much luck the narrator has.

There’s also this theme of duality throughout the book. The narrator is half French, half Vietnamese and this makes him an outsider. One of the narrator’s two best friends is a soldier willing to die for the South Vietnamese army, and the other is his commanding officer in the People’s Army. Even the title comes from the narrator sympathizing with both sides and even struggling at times with which one is best for the country.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the ending is the best part. I’ll just say it gave me 1984 flashbacks and I love it for that.

Pick up this book. It’s long but you have time now, and there’s enough happening that I never feel like it’s dragging or could be shorter. It’s well written, has fantastic characters and is everything I want in a novel.