A fascinating and nuanced character study of two people whose lives intersect while each is searching for truths buried decades in the past, The Collection of Heng Souk by S. R. Wilsher was a truly enjoyable read that at times was hard to put down. This review is based on a copy provided by the author for that purpose.
The death of two fathers thousands of miles apart sets things into motion, but most of the story takes place in Vietnam — both the nation at war with the United States in the early 1970s and the contemporary, capitalism-tinged version.
Sun Tieng, a doctor who is bullied by her police officer husband and former university professor mother, volunteers to deliver a package from her recently deceased father to his brother, the titular Heng Souk. To Sun, Heng is a mysterious figure known only by reputation: a revered and heroic soldier during the war who was admired by her father and yet reviled by her mother. Her first meeting with Heng does nothing to settle which is the real man, and despite her husband’s threats she quietly sets out to discover who her uncle really is.
Hiding out in London after suffering a heartbreaking tragedy and failed marriage, Thomas makes a return trip to his home village in England to attend his father’s funeral. Afterwards he’s told by his mother, an American expatriate lacking in maternal warmth, the man they buried is not his biological father. This sets the already-reeling Thomas on a journey to Vietnam to find out what happened to his birth father, an American airman who spent just days with his mother before shipping out and eventually going missing in action during the war.
The man who holds many of the answers Sun and Thomas seek is Ephraim Luther, an American prisoner of war who keeps a journal about his captivity at the prison run by Heng. Being captured sends Ephraim on a journey of his own and the flashback scenes from his notebook as read by Sun are quite powerful while also painting a very different picture of Heng, who seems to his niece to be a small and stoic, beaten down man.
The answers will come out, but Mr. Wilsher has crafted some interesting twists and turns along the way that kept me glued to my Kindle. As much as I enjoyed the journeys of Sun and Thomas, I found Heng to be the most fascinating character in the book. A man many would consider a war criminal and some would call “evil” as well, Heng’s actions during the war, which he does not apologize for, have damaged him extensively.
Asked by Sun why he did some of the things mentioned in Ephraim’s notebook, Heng answers:
“Few people commit evil without any stain on their conscience. But there are times when your life changes so gradually that you don’t realise what you are doing is wrong. The abnormal becomes the normal in slow uncertain steps of misfortune and poor judgement; the worst can unwind so slowly that it appears reasonable. But if you want to win wars you need men prepared to do terrible things.”
“And were you such a man, uncle?”
“For a time.”
“What happened to make you that way?” Heng Souk looked at his niece as if the question she had asked was far more complicated than her simple sentence implied. He took a long breath.
“I was young and ambitious, and war removes constraints. Ironically the war took away my ambition too in the end.”
— S.R. Wilsher. The Collection of Heng Souk (Kindle Locations 2197-2203). Kindle Edition.
There is a lot of depth and nuance to this novel, and I found the setting of Vietnam to be quite interesting. No dates are specified but it appears the story is set just three or at most four decades after U.S. involvement in the war ended. The communists who won the war have become pragmatic proto-capitalists and their enemies have quietly become allies to counter the rise of China. The contrasts are striking as embodied in the multi-faceted character of Heng.
One quick note about something American readers may find themselves wondering about. The author’s prose is “English” English, which works fine for most of the book but reading about “lorries” in the notebook written by Ephraim, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, doesn’t sound right. My suggestion: ignore the lorries and “u” words like colour and favourite in the notebook and just enjoy the story. UPDATE: In an email the author told me an updated version with “American” English where appropriate has been published.
An interesting and unique setting, finely drawn characters, and well-placed plot twists combine to make this an immersive read that I really enjoyed. For more from the author, visit his his website.