Book review: The Sympathizer

What does it mean to pretend to be something else? In one of my favorite books, Mother Night, the character Howard W. Campbell, Junior concludes that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s narrator in The Sympathizer reaches no conclusions, but he struggles with the thought throughout the story.

I saw — or imagined — a lot of parallels between Mother Night and The Sympathizer, which no doubt predisposed me to liking the latter. Both books take the form of the protagonist recounting his exploits for a captor, mixing self-reflection with facts. Both take place in a war setting, which characters having authentic connections to the people they’re trying to deceive.

But just because the themes rhyme, The Sympathizer is its own work. If nothing else, it’s a rare work that looks at the Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese perspective. It’s also a really enjoyable book in its own right. The fact that the narrator cannot answer the questions he asks himself gives the reader something to think about long after the book is done.

I loved this book to the point that I stayed up far too late to finish it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel that I just found out existed.

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