David Bergen's haunting Vietnam novel "The Time In Between" is a literary triumph.
The story is about Charles Boatman, who served in the Vietnam War 28 years earlier. The memories, most of them unpleasant, have not left him, and he is a troubled adult, gaining most of his comfort from Ada, his bright and witty daughter, who tries to encourage him.
He decides he needs to return to Vietnam to try to reach a resolution of his persistent problems. When he disappears there, Ada and his son Jon fly to Danang to try to find him. They discover a beautiful but incomprehensible world, not unlike the one their father remembered.
As they follow lead after lead, they fail to find Charlie, and they occupy in different ways the "time in between." Ada identifies with her father's suffering and wanders around on her own; Jon jumps furiously into the urban nightlife.
A chasm separates the two because Jon is gay and Ada is straight, yet they both have emotional and sexual relationships while in Vietnam. Ada cares more about their father than Jon does; he is quite sure their father is dead, and he decides to have some fun in a strange new place, while Ada is becoming an emotional wreck.
This is quite a remarkable change in Ada, who seems to have lost her joy in living, and with it her vibrant personality. She becomes troubled like her father and so needy that she makes unfortunate decisions, such as allying herself with a questionable Vietnamese intellectual.
The author, who has lived in Vietnam, is gifted in creating sympathetic characters and the entire atmosphere of a strange new place. He is a minimalist writer, yet he is so descriptive that he succeeds in making the reader feel he/she is actually in the country. Bergen easily conveys the sights, sounds and smells.
Early on, the reader may notice the prevalence of characters smoking cigarettes in almost every scene and may wonder why. Is the author a smoker? Is he obsessed with smoking? The answers are no. In actuality, it is part of Bergen's determination to create a realistic picture of Vietnam where most people smoke.
He tells part of the story in flashbacks, enabling the reader to understand better the relationship Charlie has with his children and the reasons he was driven back to Vietnam. The journey, though, turns out to be elusive.
The Vietnam War still plays a prominent role in our politics and culture whether it be the question of whether someone in public service today avoided serving in Vietnam or whether a Vietnam War veteran should be considered a better candidate for political office because he was willing to serve.
It appears that Bergen, as a Canadian, and therefore a neutral with respect to the Vietnam War, is able to look at the war with greater objectivity. Perhaps his book, now a prize-winner in Canada, will be one of the most important books written about the impact of the Vietnam War on both the Americans who served there and the Vietnamese.
E-mail: [email protected]