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If one were to think of an established American writer likely to produce a Vietnam War novel at this stage of their career, Alice McDermott probably isn’t the first name that would come to mind. But that’s precisely what she’s done in ABSOLUTION, a moving story of the lives of two American women intersecting in Saigon in 1963, when the United States had yet to commit itself irrevocably to the conflict that would consume two countries for more than a decade.

In fashioning her protagonist, who’s recalling these days from the perspective of old age, McDermott --- who won the National Book Award for her 1998 novel, CHARMING BILLY --- doesn’t stray far from her literary roots in the world of Irish-Catholic America. Tricia Kelly is the child of a working-class family from Yonkers, New York. She graduates with a teaching degree from a Catholic women’s college and, as a 22-year-old newlywed, joins her husband Peter, a lawyer and engineer, when he’s assigned to a job as a civilian advisor to navy intelligence in Saigon. And like all the women in her circle, she acknowledges that “my real vocation in those days, my aspiration, was to be a helpmeet for my husband.”

"ABSOLUTION is a psychologically and politically astute book, tracing the path from naïveté to painfully earned knowledge for both an individual and a nation."

But Tricia’s life changes irrevocably when she encounters her fellow American “helpmeet” (a status she invokes several times), Charlene, at one of the innumerable cocktail parties that are the center of the social lives of the American expatriates. In contrast to Tricia’s retiring personality, Charlene is something of a force of nature, and it isn’t long before she enlists Tricia in what Charlene’s husband cheerfully calls her “cabal.”

The group’s activities include visits to children’s hospital wards, where the women distribute “baskets of cheer,” funded in part by the sale of “Saigon Barbie” dolls --- the hot new American doll dressed up in the traditional garb of Vietnamese women --- to their fellow Americans. It’s there that Tricia sees children suffering from burns she later suspects have been caused by napalm.

One Saturday, Tricia surreptitiously accompanies Charlene on a visit to a leprosarium, where her friend hatches a plan to provide clothes for the patients. Tricia remains passive as she watches Charlene execute schemes that are simultaneously benevolent and patronizing, all of which engage her at least tangentially with the Vietnamese black market or involve materials obtained in some questionably legal fashion.

Amid these encounters, Tricia shares the story of her difficulties in conceiving a child, as she suffers several miscarriages. McDermott handles this aspect of the novel with the same astuteness as its other threads, especially in one scene in the aftermath of Tricia’s first loss, when Charlene comes to her home to comfort her.

From the broader perspective of the war itself, Tricia observes with a tinge of irony --- even as she acknowledges her familiarity with novels like THE QUIET AMERICAN and THE UGLY AMERICAN --- that in 1963, “the cocoon in which American dependents dwelled was still polished to a high shine by our sense of ourselves and our great, good nation.” Ensconced in her comfortable enclave, she nonetheless is aware of the “distant thudding of artillery we could hear from the other side of the river” and the “distant tracing of fire we could see now and then from the happy confines of our barbed-wired homes.” She and especially Peter are shaken by the incident in June 1963, when a Buddhist monk sets himself aflame to protest persecution by the regime of Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, which causes significant cognitive dissonance in their views of their faith.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, McDermott departs from Tricia’s Saigon story, shifting to the perspective of Charlene’s daughter, Rainey, to whom Tricia addresses her account decades after the war. She was eight years old during her family’s sojourn in Vietnam. Now, in addition to fortuitously connecting with Dominic, a kindhearted Vietnam veteran whose path had crossed Charlene’s and Tricia’s, she brings her mother’s story to a conclusion. It would be inaccurate to describe this interlude --- which is beautifully narrated and at times deeply moving --- as a false note, but the book’s overall appeal would not have been diminished materially by its absence.

But in an emotionally powerful climax, McDermott returns to Tricia’s voice, as she describes Charlene’s final, and most audacious, plan. It is at once deeply compassionate and heedlessly cruel, and it becomes something of a metaphor for the folly of American involvement in Vietnam. Tricia’s response allows her to shed her passivity and rebel against “everyone in my life who had considered my opinions inconsequential, who had lied to me or ignored me or manipulated me for what they considered my own benefit.”

ABSOLUTION is a psychologically and politically astute book, tracing the path from naïveté to painfully earned knowledge for both an individual and a nation. If Ward Just had written a Vietnam novel from a female perspective, it might have looked something like this one. It’s a story that raises profound moral questions that its characters wrestle with for a lifetime and that our country confronts to this day.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 19, 2024

by Alice McDermott

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374610487
  • ISBN-13: 9780374610487