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Spies in Canaan by David Park: Masterful storytelling that deserves a wide readership

Layered tale set near the end of the Vietnam war is crammed with astute observations

Spies in Canaan
Author: David Park
ISBN-13: 978-1526631930
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

David Park is often referred to as a writer’s writer, a purveyor of thoughtful, atmospheric fiction that is mature in observation, structure, pace, character – all the good things that bring a book to life. To date, he has written nine novels and two collections of short stories, which have won him, among other accolades, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Authors’ Club First Novel Award, the Bass Ireland Arts Award for Literature, the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize and the American Ireland Fund Literary Award. Despite this impressive list, Park is perhaps less well known than he should be among readers today, as sometimes happens with writer’s writers. His contemporary, Bernard MacLaverty, is another who comes to mind.

Park’s new novel, Spies in Canaan, on the face of it looks like an attempt to change that, with the title conjuring up a spy thriller, a move into that perennially popular genre. But the spies in Park’s novel aren’t in some cold war setting, they’re not even in Canaan. Instead the backdrop is the final few months of the Vietnam war, as seen through the lens of an American bureaucrat, Michael, who 40 years later is still reckoning with the sins of the past. What follows is a gripping, poignant story of loss and betrayal, of youthful ignorance and a lifetime’s worth of regret, of the unreliability of memory when recounting the violence of war, set against the vital importance of having such testimony recorded for the ages.

As with another great chronicler of war in fiction, Graham Greene, Park favours outsiders and underdogs as narrators, literal anti-heroes that are assigned to desk jobs, filing away the victories and losses, the atrocities and atonements, then burning those files when ordered. Michael, in his early 20s, is “a clerk with security clearance” in humid, chaotic Saigon. He takes his orders from the macho Donovan, learns not to ask questions, and so finds himself in “my customary role of listener”, which is to say, well placed to act as a witness to a misguided war and the damage done to the people left behind.

Classically comforting

The structure of Spies in Canaan is classically comforting. The retrospective narrative in Vietnam, which accounts for two-thirds of the book, unfolds as a consequence of the present day storyline in contemporary America. A busy opening establishes Michael’s current circumstances – widowed, wealthy, a retired diplomat who lives on the east coast but still has influence in Washington – before the story settles into Vietnam. There is a profound emotional awareness that gets us extraordinarily close to Michael’s character, and to his predicament of being a tool of the US government: “That age-old get-out clause-what I did was for the greater good.”

The details feel brilliantly real, such as the inner circle of the Langley Boys; “those endless acronyms with which the war effort was littered”; the “ghost soldiers – a lucrative scam where military commanders added names of non-existent soldiers to their lists and creamed off their wages”; the coffees on Tu Do Street; and the city’s seedy nightlife, where “girls hustle with the learned and obscene language of the street”.

The psychological insights are equally astute. Donovan is the kind of man with “the power to make you feel negatively about yourself, about whatever he supposed your momentary inadequacy was”. Michael is also attuned to his own failings, particularly as a storyteller, the fallibility of his memory, “the redactions we all make on the pages of our past”.

Truth and propaganda

Storytelling as life force runs through this book. Michael’s attempt to honestly recount events is contrasted with the propaganda his friend Corley must write for the folks back home. It’s the story of America saving the Vietnamese people, versus the reality of mass graves in villages, or the desperation Michael witnesses once the evacuation is under way: “All the time beseeching hands pulled at my clothes and people tried to shove letters in front of me, supposedly evidence that they had worked for us in some capacity.”

A virtuosic set-piece describing a tornado in the American prairies works as a bridge from past to present times. If the final third of the book slightly overdoes the explaining of Michael’s new mission, we are more than on board by this stage of the narrative, hoping that this likeable, genuine character will succeed. The present day storyline gives new layers of meaning to the book’s themes of war and ownership, “how easy it is to lie when you want the lie to be true”. By the end of this fine novel, the biblical reference in the title is all too clear: “Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan; ten were bad, two were good. But who can ever say inside the churning maelstrom of history and memory’s distortions which we really were?”