Charles Boatman has been haunted by the chaos of the Vietnam War for most of his life, and after almost three decades, he is still struggling with his own private war of deliverance. Living in the isolated mountains of British Columbia, Charles has built a comfortable home and raised his three children
- his eldest daughter, Ada, and the twins, Jon and Del. He is content to live off the land, yet he still aches to smother the demons of his past.
Plagued by the ghosts of the murdered who come to him in his nightmares, Charles can never quite purge the bloody images of battle, particularly the senseless killing of a young Vietnamese boy on the Han River whom he shot in a moment of fear. When his children eventually leave and he finds himself alone, the memories of this incident come flooding back with startling new intensity, making him feel ancient and unmoored. He books a ticket to Vietnam then cancels it, unsure of what he will find if he goes.
When an old war colleague lends him a book written by a North Vietnamese soldier, Charles is drawn to this young man's harrowing story of survival, intrigued by the author's brooding photograph and the sadness that seems to hover around and above him. The story offers Charles a connection with something, stirring up the moral forces that over the years have so beleaguered him.
Thinking that in some way he might conclude this event that has consumed and shaped him, Charles rebooks a ticket to Hanoi, now sure that this is the only way he can exorcise his ghosts. Upon his arrival, however, this aging war veteran abruptly vanishes, and it is left to his children, Ada and Jon, to pick up the pieces, to travel to this "perplexing and alien place, where the language was more beautiful because they could not understand it" to find their missing father.
While Ada stays in DaNang trying to make sense of Charles' story, the preoccupied Jon travels, intent on meeting men and sampling the exotic delights of this country. Ada meets an officious police inspector who tells her that her father remains missing; then she falls into the company of ex-pat American missionary, Jack Doud, and his troubled wife, Elaine, who had met Charles, remembering
how he had told them that he felt "lost." Eventually Ada finds solace in the arms of a Hoang Vu, a melancholy Vietnamese artist who has survived the war and the hard times after but continues to be plagued by his own ghosts.
A letter left behind by Charles eventually connects Ada to her father, his voice lifting and falling away, telling her of how one night he looked out over the harbor of Danang and contemplated, with great peace, his own death. By coming back to this place and solving some mystery, Charles has tried to understand what has happened to him, and he wonders how he can take away the pain of the random shedding of innocent blood. Although the streets are the same, it
is just not the same place. Everything that was familiar to him has vanished.
Bergen writes exquisitely of time and place, the story dreamlike and poetic, interlacing
throughout the narrative the universal themes of love, death, and mourning. The author transports the reader to this striking and foreign landscape, where
Western values are seen as an anathema and where exotic sights, sounds and smells dominate. Both father and daughter ache for a connection: Ada thinks about the future and the past and how she feels so detached, while Charles ponders the "light and shade" that falls across his own memories, a whole history arriving with absolute clarity and then disappearing.
Bergen offers no easy answers to the chaotic emotional consequences of war and the journey toward healing, yet he shows how lives can often slip away, unnoticed and undiscovered. His characters "set sail in a particular direction, certain of the route," and then find themselves loose and set adrift.
Charles remains paralyzed by his past actions, caught in an emotional dilemma not of his own making. Ada, clever and gifted beyond her years, aches for her father, "the love for him like a weight that she has to carry." Both are wandering, helpless and aimless, through a quagmire of painful feelings, anxiously groping toward a resolution that so often seems impossible.