Monday, 9 January 2017

Lotusland by David Joiner

Lotusland by David Joiner
Published in Canada by Guernica Editions in March 2015

Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Abebooks
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How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nathan Monroe is a 28-year-old American living in Saigon who falls in love with a poor but talented Vietnamese painter. When he fails to protect their love from her desperate chase for a better life in America, his safety net appears in the form of Anthony, an old domineering friend in Hanoi who hires Nathan at his real estate firm. Only much later does Nathan discover that Anthony has intended all along for him to take over his job and family so that he, too, can escape and start his life over in America. Lotusland dramatizes the power imbalances between Westerners living abroad and between Westerners and Vietnamese -- in love and friendship, in the consequences of war, and in the pursuit of dreams.

Lotusland was my first NetGalley download and I was delighted to discover a literary novel of travel to exotic climes which perfectly suits my reading bias.

Set in present-day Vietnam, Lotusland tells the story of Nathan, a struggling American ex-pat writer, who has been living in Saigon for several years. He makes ends meet with various writing assignments and English teaching, but appears to have no real focus and is in a rut. By contrast, the Vietnamese woman he meets, Le, has it all worked out. She is an artist working in a gallery and has confidently applied for a visa to emigrate to America. I enjoyed the different views of emigration and immigration which are presented in Lotusland. Nathan tries to discourage Le's application by explaining the poor quality of life she could end up with as a Vietnamese woman in America. His own life in Vietnam is hardly better, yet he does not or cannot see the similarities. Despite his mastery of the language and however long he lives in the country, Nathan will never be Vietnamese as Le would not be American. Joiner adds a third approach by introducing us to Anthony, another American, but one with a Vietnamese wife and children. At first sight, Anthony is more deeply integrated even than Nathan, but his is a lonely exile as he refuses to learn any of the native language thereby keeping himself aloof from his family and with Western business contacts in lieu of real friends. His business struck me as pure Colonial arrogance, attempting to force Western capitalism and wealthy leisure pursuits onto a area of simple rural agriculture to satisfy his own vision of how Vietnam 'should' be.

I was impressed that I became drawn into these three peoples' lives as I did not find any of them particularly likeable, but I still wanted to find out what happens to them. Nathan's could almost be a coming-of-age story. He is initially pretty much a drifter, easily coerced and led. Le is the most pragmatic of the three, finding her true path when her dream fails. I was pleased that the details of traditional lacquer painting were included. The passage slowed the pace of the story, but it was fascinating to read. Likewise, Joiner's descriptions of Saigon and Hanoi, the train journeys and general life in Vietnam are well observed and created strong mental images for me. His intimate knowledge of the country shines through in his writing.

Each chapter begins with the image of a lotus flower which is a nice touch. I am not sure if it is a Kindle-ism though, but the initial capital letter is then on a line of its own with the remainder of its word on the next line. I had no trouble working out the text but the appearance is odd!
I can't say that Lotusland has inspired me to visit Vietnam in the same way as other novels have drawn me to their countries. However, I think I now have greater understanding and appreciation. The aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Agent Orange use are sensitively handled to induce sympathy, not pity, and I am left with an impression of a strong people in a beautiful country. I will certainly be recommending Lotusland to friends who have previously visited as I think they will appreciate the memories called up by this story.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by David Joiner / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

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