Absolution: A Novel
“this compelling novel explores important themes such as colonialism, friendship, religion, and the meaning of ‘doing good.’”
At first, Absolution reads like The Ugly American told from the rarely heard point of view of the wives of American diplomats and businessmen in 1960s Saigon. With an engrossing plot, richly complex characters, and keen observations of social gestures, this compelling novel explores important themes such as colonialism, friendship, religion, and the meaning of “doing good.”
Then, the last one-fourth of the story takes a sharp turn that enhances the themes with new insights and poignancy.
“You said there’s very little good we can do,” Charlene, the wife of a wealthy American oilman, tells an expat wife who is skeptical of her plans for helping Vietnamese women and girls. “And I agree, I do. But that very little good might be just the thing required to stand against that very little evil—that impulse to turn away.”
Charlene—charismatic, brilliant, beautiful, and manipulative—is the Queen Bee of the U.S. wives in early 1963 when young newlyweds Tricia and Peter Kelly arrive in Saigon for Peter to take a job as a lawyer for the Navy. Over the next eight months, Charlene lures shy Tricia into increasingly convoluted schemes that skirt both law and danger. They start by hiring a local woman to sew traditional clothing for “Saigon Barbies,” which they’ll sell to Americans as a charitable fundraiser. From there, they travel deeper into uncharted roads to deliver gift baskets to a leper colony.
Meanwhile, Tricia is hoping to get pregnant, and the U.S.-backed Diem regime is rotting from corruption, paranoia, and violence.
The story is told through letters from Tricia to Charlene’s grown daughter, Rainey, some 60 years later, with a letter from Rainey sandwiched in.
Tricia half-recognizes Charlene’s manipulation yet seems powerless against it. In Tricia’s description, Charlene has “a face pressed to the glass with the assuredness that the glass would always give way.” Typically, Charlene will “align our hips” or “slip her fingers under my elbow” to move Tricia, almost imperceptibly, in her direction.
But if Charlene is too often a bully and a flirt, she is the only one of the complacent wives who cares enough to try to help the Vietnamese, even in her admittedly small ways.
And what if those efforts sometimes cause more harm than help? That’s one of the important questions this book raises.
Peter also defies easy stereotyping. Sometimes he is such a knee-jerk anti-Communist that it seems he must be a covert CIA operative. Yet he is deeply religious, naively viewing JFK and Diem—“two Catholic presidents standing together to defeat the march of communists, to fulfill Our Lady’s promise at Fatima”—as a “miraculous, portentous, historic alignment of the stars.”
While there are too many characters to keep track of, the main and secondary figures are all drawn with admirable complexity and detail.
So is the long-ago milieu. “I’m sure it all seems absurd to you,” Tricia writes to Rainey: the Americans’ faith that their government was well-meaning, that a benevolent God was on their side against Communism, that it was perfectly normal for Westerners to live in elegant mansions while the Vietnamese worked as their servants, that women should obey their husbands.
At a couple of moments, the narrative hints at a dangerous turning point, to some degree playing on the reader’s knowledge of what looms in Vietnam. When those hints repeatedly peter out, it initially feels like weak plotting.
In fact, that apparent letdown is proof of National Book Award-winning author Alice McDermott’s refusal to rely on clichés, her insistence on digging for the truth. After all, the war also didn’t follow the path that looked so obvious back in 1963.