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book review

The Sympathizer
By Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove, 367 pages, $35.95

The adage goes, "History is written by the victors," but America controls the story of the Vietnam War. (No wonder, then, the widespread ignorance marking the recent controversy around Calgary band Viet Cong.) In Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel of the war's aftermath, our double-agent narrator, an adviser on an American movie about Vietnam, attempts to subvert the film's message – revolution is not only in the means of production, but of representation. The Sympathizer takes the form of a confession after the flight to America and subsequent capture of our unnamed narrator, South Vietnamese Army captain and Communist informant. It's a novel much concerned with doubleness (double-agent, doubly minded, doubly raced), the simultaneously cynical and ardent narration so hypnotic it makes up for its own excesses. Nguyen's Vietnam is also of two minds, a country battling itself. With one side the victor, nuance becomes dangerous, the possibility of ever truly returning home uncertain.

Book of Sands
By Karim Alrawi, Harper Avenue, 315 pages, $29.99

Canadian-Egyptian Karim Alrawi's debut, winner of the inaugural HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, bears the tagline "A novel of the Arab uprising." It's an accurate claim, but how? Book of Sands is not a protest novel, though its early pages present a familiar image: in an unnamed totalitarian state, protesters barricade a square, where they clash with police. But then the lens pulls back. Sensing trouble from authorities, Tarek, a former political prisoner, flees to the mountains with his young daughter. Their escape quickly turns to spiritual quest as they pick up travellers from Tarek's past. A social novel exploring shades between realism and myth, present and past, agnosticism and devotion, Book of Sands is political because it's about the personal transformations that foment change. It asks, what is the nature of choice? What are the contingencies of freedom? That's how it is a novel of the Arab Spring.

The Girl From the Garden
By Parnaz Foroutan, Ecco, 271 pages, $26.99

This is a powerful historical novel about a family's downfall, set worlds apart. In the present, Mahboubeh, elderly sole survivor of the Malacouti family, tends her teeming garden in Los Angeles. There she remembers the garden of the family compound in early 20th-century Iran and considers a mystery: how did her mother die? At novel's outset the Malacoutis are a wealthy family of Persian Jews living in the town of Kermanshah. Despite religious persecution, they've had great business success. The problem: Asher, head of the family, is without heir. This sets off a tragic chain of events, a story of obsession in which a gendered sense of honour straitjackets men and women alike. One criticism: Mahboubeh is a compelling character underused, her motivation for remembering this story now unexplored. The historical narrative's high drama and suspense overwhelm Foroutan's exquisite contemporary set pieces as a result. Great stuff, but I wanted more.