Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book review: The Trader of Saigon by Lucy Cruickshanks


My edition: Hardcover, published on 4 July 2013 by Quercus, 336 pages.

Description: In the chaos and corruption of post-civil war Vietnam, three seemingly unconnected lives are brought together in greed, fear and hope.

As a US Army deserter, Alexander is a man without country; stuck in a life he no longer controls and embroiled in the dark business of trading women. His latest victim is Hanh, a poor rural girl living in Hanoi who dreams to escaping the inevitability of an impoverished future and for whom Alexander’s arrival seems like the answer to a prayer. Neither of them has ever met Phuc - a Vietnamese businessman who backed the wrong side in the war and is now unable to pay his financial and political debts to the Party. But his struggles are about to change both their lives.

Rating:



The Trader of Saigon is a beautifully atmospheric novel, that tells the story of a few seemingly unconnected people whose lives become intertwined through bad fortune and sheer desperation in a disordered post-war Vietnam.

The novel starts with Alexander, who is a US Army deserter but for the sake of his safety and blending in he pretends to be a Russian. He is the trader of Saigon the title refers to and his trade is unfortunately not something innocent like spices or even information. No, he trades people. Young women, to be exact. He lurks in dark bars looking out for his next target and through sweet-talking he manages to grab them in his clutches to sell on through a man who calls himself "The Herder". Despite the Herder's more than seedy intentions, Alexander tells himself he's doing the young women a favour by taking them off the streets and finding them a job or a husband.

15-year-old Hahn lives with her sick mother in a rural area outside of the city. Every day she uses her bike to get into the city for her job, she sits outside of a restroom that's little more than a hole in the ground and collects the customers' money for her boss who has yet to actually pay her any wages, and on top of that she also works in the rice fields. Anything to earn a little money so she can buy the medicine she desperately needs for her mother, but even with two jobs and the little rations she's given, she barely gets by.

Phuc used to be a successful and rather rich businessman, selling fish to the good restaurants and making quite a name for himself and his family. But after the war he is a target for the government because his fish often ended up on the plates of the rich Americans and they believe that therefore he is traitor. Now without a steady job or income, and most of the time fearing for his life, Phuc is barely able to support his family. He's lost all dignity and is desperate to change his bad fortune around.

The characters weren't particularly likeable but I think that only heightened the sense of realism in the novel. Post war the cities and villages are still in a state of chaos and the people are traumatised, frightened and live in extreme poverty, unless they're willing to participate in corruption and other illegal activities.

Alexander who thinks quite highly of himself and his job turns out to be a coward hiding from the failures in his past and he is unsure of where he belongs in the world, if anywhere at all. And even Phuc, who seems like an honest and hardworking family man, is eventually tempted to gamble away that was is most important in his life. While he never intends to keep his end of the bargain, the trick he plays with another innocent life is possibly even worse. It shows that anyone is willing to forget his or her morals when desperate enough.

I'm amazed that someone who hasn't personally lived through the Vietnam war, and the years directly after, is able to describe the setting so accurately and with so much detail. I have never been to that part of the world and admit I know little about the country, or even the war other than the tainted picture shown to me in American media, but after reading The Trader of Saigon I feel like I've visited Vietnam, walked the dirty and dusty streets, wandered through the endless rice fields and can even describe the rancid smells lingering in the humid air.

My only gripe with the novel is that it is too short. As soon as I opened the pages I found myself transported to the hot and filthy streets of Vietnam with the help of author Lucy Cruickshanks' beautiful descriptions and while it certainly isn't a jolly place to be, it is an extremely fascinating one to read about. But too soon I found myself returning to the here and now because it had already finished. Don't get me wrong, Cruickshanks manages to tell the complex and intricate story well and the pace doesn't feel too quick at all, but her atmospheric writing and detailed descriptions of the post-civil war country simply leaves me wanting more.

Purchase your copy now from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Waterstones or your own preferred retailer.


Many thanks to Quercus for providing me with a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review



Would you like to know more about author Lucy Cruickshanks and/or let her know how much you love her books? You can find her online in the following places:

Twitter: @LJCruickshanks

Facebook: facebook.com/L.J.Cruickshanks

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