THE COLLECTION OF HENG SOUK
GENRE: literary fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction
When her father dies, Sun visits his estranged brother, Heng Souk to return a surprise package. Yet her frail uncle is a very different man from her tough and testing father. When she discovers in his possession a notebook written by an American POW detailing his torturous relationship with his captor, she is startled by what she learns.
Meanwhile, Thomas Allen, still reeling from the death of his daughter and the breakup of his marriage, is told that the man he always called Dad was not his biological father. His mother gives him a batch of letters she still has from the ‘real’ disappeared father. Their tragically unresolved love story prompts Thomas to find out why his mother’s ‘greatest love’ never returned to her after the Vietnam War.
His search leads him to the notorious prison ‘the Citadel’, and to Sun and her uncle. Despite the hostility of her brutal husband and deceitful mother, Sun and Thomas begin a perilous relationship. Aware that the fate of Thomas’ father is revealed in Ephraim’s notebook, she is torn between helping Thomas in his search and the damaging effect revealing what is in the notebook will mean for all of them.
The Collection of Heng Souk by W.R. Wilsher is a stunning literary exploration of war: war on a personal level, war from the intensely scripted play in one act of captor and captive, forever in a dance of attrition. It’s about the man left standing, about the nature of regret and the shifting perceptions of duty and rightness, and the eventual numbness war instills—against compassion, against reason, even against hope itself.
The story begins at the beginning of the end, prefaced with grief and despair, and an obligation of a son to say goodbye to his father. It continues with modern day Vietnam and a woman delivering more sadness, to her uncle, a man she barely knows, accompanied by a husband filled with resentment, with motivations couched in the whispers of secrets and lies, and a growing suspicion nothing is as it seems.
Heng Souk was good at his work, good at digging out information from the prisoners under his aegis, good at disposing of them when they no longer were of use, good at many things others found worthy of admiration. His niece, Sun, is intelligent and perceptive, a doctor used to dealing with people and things analytically and compassionately. Together they set out on a voyage of atonement, retribution and discovery.
Heng Souk gives Sun a notebook, a diary from one of the prisoners. It is Ephraim Luther’s diary that fills in the simple, heart-wrenching details of a life incarcerated, of tortures of both mind and body, of forays into the psyches of prisoner and jailer, and the games each plays in pursuit of sanity and fulfilling one’s duty.
It is war’s horror writ small, seen through the eyes of men with everything and nothing to lose. Men insulated from the larger conflict, yet so much a part of it, theirs becomes the more compelling tale as it defines and dictates what each will do to survive.
This is a complex tale, told from several perspectives: Heng Souk, Sun, the captives, mothers, fathers … and Thomas Allen, a damaged man in search of closure on who he is and how he will exist in a world gone forever dark after the loss of his child. The tale unwinds from present and past, and that juncture of history and the now is where perception begins.
The paths this story takes are twisting, winding, seldom comfortable, always revelatory and insightful, and just when you think you’ve reached that ah ha moment of comprehension, it takes you a step, then two beyond.
Spanning generations and cultures, the Collection of Heng Souk confronts the horrors of war, without prejudice, and with profound insight into how our personal histories shape us and those with whom we share the vagaries of this—and that—time and place. It speaks to the nature of grief, to choices, to resolve and courage in the face of the unspeakable.
Some books make you stop and think, some leave you questioning what you thought you knew about events of the past. This book is one of those game-changers that will stay with you long after you click off your eReader.
This book will earn pride of place on my bookshelf if and when it comes out in hardcover. For now, on my virtual shelf, I give it my highest endorsement: a must read, unequivocal five stars.