Review - Saigon Dark, Elka Ray

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Saigon Dark
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Book Synopsis

Good and bad. Life and death. Some choices aren't black and white

A grief-stricken young mother switches her dead baby for an abused child, then spends the next decade living a lie. She remarries and starts to feel safe when she gets a note: 'I know what you did'. Can she save her family from her dark secret?

Book Review

It's taken an age to get this review to the point where it can be published, because it's it's been so hard to clearly identify what about SAIGON DARK really worked for this reader, and why there were some niggling doubts remaining.

A seemingly straight-forward story where Lily, a competent, respected surgeon has returned to her native Saigon, two children with her - leaving behind a failed marriage to an American Vietnamese man. When her young daughter dies in a drowning accident, she buries the body in her garden - never telling anyone what happened. Then grief-stricken Lily kidnaps (rescues) an abused child from the house next door, raising her as her dead daughter. Suddenly not so straight-forward.

Guilt, sadness and paranoia abound in this novel, which quite often feels like a long-running train crash, as Lily spirals out of control. The portrait of this woman is interesting and particularly well done as you have a seemingly competent, assertive woman in her professional life, who, from the moment she finds the body of her daughter, does so many inexplicable things. But it's not just the daft decisions, it's the absolute refusal to take stock / to consider the potential consequences / to stop and breathe until, as the reader just knows will happen, reality turns around and bites back hard. 

Obviously there's an unreliable narrator at the centre of SAIGON DARK. Or is it perhaps the sinister echo of the ex-husband or her the best friend, miles away and somehow complicit in something. Perhaps this is where the niggling doubts come from. There's a lot of belief being suspended here. Sure you might think a little boy would accept a sudden change in sister without dropping his mother into it too deep, and you might sort of expect that an isolated, recently arrived family could hide a switch like this. And you can live with the idea that the guilt would be partly because Lily's dead daughter was a handful, and the hiding of her death by a seemingly intelligent, educated woman was all explainable. And the flitting, and returning, and the new husband, the ex-husband, and the odd interventions from the best friend, and and and. The batting away of disbelief is undoubtedly helped by the pace of the novel, and the cleverly sympathetic nature of the woman at the centre of it all, and fortunately, the unravelling starts early enough to give you hope that any doubts you might be experiencing aren't completely unreasonable.

All in all it's an interesting one this. SAIGON DARK is styled as a psychological thriller, with a central highly unreliable character who is oddly sympathetic and utterly infuriating all at the same time. Bought up in America, but with Vietnamese ancestry, she's both an insider and outsider. She's isolated without many friends or strong local connections, and she's profoundly impulse driven. With each wrong-turn she erects more and more hurdles to the point where you just know she's going to trip. And for most of SAIGON DARK this reader could not decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Definitely worth reading if you're looking for something that's outside the box by a long way.

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