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A BEND IN THE RIVER
In 1968, two young Vietnamese sisters flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is attacked by American forces and burned to the ground. The only survivors of the brutal massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tam’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong.
For nearly 10 years, neither sister knows if the other is alive. Do they both survive the war? And if they do, can they mend their fractured relationship? Or are the wounds from their journeys too deep to heal? In a stunning departure from her crime thrillers, Libby Fischer Hellmann delves into a universal story about survival, family, and the consequences of war.
“She watched flames devour the huts like they were hungry.”
Author Libby Fischer Hellmann’s descriptions – whether of the destruction of a village or the crumbling of a person’s soul – is outstanding. Readers are quickly put into the scenes and the minds of the characters, sisters Tam and Mai. Though the sisters seem to have little in common, they are both resilient, resourceful, and strong women who are survivors, at all costs. It’s heartbreaking to watch their journeys, which take them in separate directions, but it’s also rewarding to watch them grow and learn and eventually forgive. I found many parallels between A Bend in the River and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale – which is nothing but good news for readers.
From a historical perspective, it’s clear that Hellmann has done her research. As an American, I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and uncomfortable to not only observe the atrocities of our soldiers, but to feel them via the characters in A Bend in the River. Add to that the pain of experiencing the atrocities of the Communists, via Tam’s perspective as she fights with the Viet Cong, the war is horrifyingly real. Tam is constantly reminded of the real people, the innocent people that her actions and allegiances directly or indirectly affected. We’re all reminded that in war, there are no winners.
ABOUT THE NARRATION. Narrator Robin Rowan takes this story to the next level with her precise and excellent performances of a wide cast of characters. She knows the nuances and inflections of the Vietnamese language, so listeners have an authentic listening experience. This narration coupled with Hellmann’s prose are a perfect pairing to provide a complete immersion into the story and lives of Mai and Tam. While it’s a challenge for those of us not familiar with Vietnamese to remember the names, words, and places, the story would lose much of its luster without them. (I intend to get the book in print since reading with my eyes tends to make words foreign to me stick.)
Reading A Bend in the River is a fully immersive experience into the history, geography, and language of a place and time that is painful to visit but so important to remember. With an intriguing story and characters to care about, I’m adding A Bend in the River to my Best of 2020 list.
Thank you to the author and Audiobookworm Promotions for providing me an audio download in exchange for my honest opinion – the only kind I give.
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