A nightmare revisited

Returning to the scene of his crime, a Vietnam veteran disappears

Review Novel


The Time In Between

David Bergen

Random House / 237 pages

Depressed about his part in a 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians, Charles Boatman returns to Vietnam after a 28-year hiatus. A few weeks later, two of his grown children learn that Charles is missing, so they leave their home in Canada and journey to Vietnam to find out what happened.

A story within a story within two other stories, David Bergen's fourth novel, The Time in Between, recently received the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary award, putting Bergen in the company of such luminaries as Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.

Told in alternating sections and through a convergence of dreams, journeys, serendipitous actions and symmetrical happenings, Bergen's latest is a war story with a twist. The plot focuses on the bond between a troubled, middle-aged father and his older daughter, Ada. Although Ada's brother, Jon, accompanies her on the trip, he does little else to find their father. Ada pieces together bits of her father's life and finds herself pushing headfirst against the unknown just as Charles, in his way, has done.

An American Vietnam veteran living in the Canadian wilderness, Charles tries to come to grips with the secret that he's kept from his family: He and his patrol set fire to a village whose only inhabitants were several Vietnamese women and children. Then, because of stress, Charles killed one of the boys. Later, when Charles would hear about the My Lai massacre, which also occurred in Quang Ngai province, he would relive his horrible secret.

Besides leaving him prone to nightmares, his action ruins his marriage. When Sara, his ex-wife, dies in a motorcycle accident, Ada, Jon, and Dell, his children, move to Canada, where they and their father live Heidi-like on Sumas Mountain in British Columbia.

But Charles' despondency threatens their happiness. "I am incapable of love," he tells a woman with whom he is involved. Although the statement would sound melodramatic in any other context (including this review), it's appropriate in the narrative. The words are set precisely in Bergen's unadorned yet exquisite prose, in which one can take any two sentences and have a kind of prose version of haiku: "The blue sky all around. And in the village, a dog that had survived lifted its head and howled at the sun."

All that Charles needs to push him over the edge he finds in the novel In a Dark Wood by Vietnamese author Dang Tho, a story with overtones of Dante's Inferno. Although the narrative is Bergen's invention, it resembles Bao Ninh's 1991 The Sorrow of War, which garnered extravagant praise and whose influence Bergen acknowledges.

Written by survivors of the Vietnam War, both books tell the story of one who could easily have been a child in the village that Charles helped to destroy. Mesmerized by the tale, Charles can't stop reading - leading to one of the few flat periods in The Time in Between: Bergen's excerpt of the imaginary novel is overly long at 15 pages. But Bergen makes up for the slack by turning up the tension.

After reading Dang Tho's book, Charles flies to Hanoi and visits the hamlet where the murder took place. If he could understand and confess his deed to Dang Tho, Charles believes, he could remove the weight from his conscience.

Ada retraces her father's steps, following leads from a letter he left in the pocket of his suitcase. She realizes that she never knew her father and may have lost the opportunity to do so. Then she falls ill. Nearly comatose, she dreams that her father is looking for the soul of a boy he killed.

Her dreams, her sense of her father's ghostly presence, and her journey's symmetry with that of her father make Ada's search larger than the story, almost archetypal. She is every daughter (or son) who tries to understand a parent and ultimately herself. Her sense of floating and of her father's spirit floating add to the novel's mythological texture, as do the trips that father and daughter take overseas to Vietnam; the ferry rides across the Han River are heavy with allusions to the Styx. Even their surname, Boatman, seems to have more than one meaning.

Central to the story's power is its portrayal of the relationship between daughter and father, as expressed in this reminiscence: "He saw Ada as a baby, the olive skin and the chubby hands, her fat lips closing around Sara's engorged breast. ... She was the one he loved most easily. ... She watched him, and by doing this she gauged the tone of her own life. He was afraid she would end up desperate like him."

With simple sentences, evocative images and subtle insights into elusive emotional states, the words don't merely tell a story; they become poetry.

Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches English at Towson University.

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