Visiting the Streets of Saigon with Elka Ray
With most of us here being Westerners, it’s only logical for us to mostly stick with literature taking place in the Western hemisphere. Time and time again our novels take us through well-known cities and first-world countries we’ve probably become better-acquainted with than the actual people living there. It’s always encouraging to see authors such as Elka Ray who offer us an understandable window into cultures we tend to overlook for fault of our own geographic location.
As a British-born writer who has spent the last fifteen years and counting living in Southeast Asia, she is better-positioned than most people to serve as a liaison between our world and theirs, a fact displayed quite prominently in her novel Saigon Dark .
As the rather unusual story opens, we are presented with Lily Vo, a single mother raising Duncan and Evelyn in Saigon, both infants with the former being the older of the two. Despite her personal emotional struggles, Lily’s life is quite lax and stable, but such things can only last for so long.
On a tragic night, she loses sight of Evelyn for a mere moment, which results in her wandering off near the pond in their backyard. Suffering from chronic seizures, she helplessly falls in and drowns before Lily has even noticed her disappearance.
Distraught by shock and grief, Lily resolves to bury her alone in the backyard, and at that moment fate throws in the most curious of curveballs: the heavily abused infant daughter of the poor squatter neighbours is standing in the middle of street at night, frozen in fear and panic.
Her heart heavy and mind in shambles, Lily decides to take her in, and shortly after leaves with her and Duncan to try and start a new life, trying to pass off the small girl as the dead Evelyn. While she does manage to fool the authorities, there are always other strings attached to such a complex affair, and some of them are being tugged years and years after that fateful night.
A Porthole to the Vietnamese Ways
The first element which jumped up into my eyes was the profound accuracy with which Ray described Vietnam, how precisely and aptly she is able to depict the streets, houses, businesses, people, their customs as well as their culture. Virtually every passage shows us something about the way people down there live or think, how they perceive the world and what they value.
These observations are made without any implications of comparison or judgment; if anything, they are stated as neutral facts whose values can only be judged subjectively. While this isn’t exactly the be-all end-all guide to Vietnam and its people, it certainly sheds some light on some of the more covert aspects of their lives and customs, making for an interesting study on a foreign land as viewed through the eyes of a Westerner.
The authenticity of all the details provided in Saigon Dark helps considerably in creating and maintaining an atmosphere of true danger and discomfort, always reminding us that nothing is guaranteed for Lily and her schemes, how it might all come crashing down one day without so much as a warning.
The further this story develops, the more it feels like a novelized biography rather than a work of fiction due to the omnipresence of realistic elements. The most amazing aspect of this whole feat is the fact these descriptions are integrated seamlessly into the story, never hampering its pace or making us feel bored and long for the plot to develop.
Fate: Kindness in Cruelty
If we take a moment to discuss the plot itself, I felt it was much more engaging than I had originally anticipated. Historically-speaking, novels centred on family dynamics, whether in legal or illegal circumstances, have more often than not failed to retain my interest.
However, with Saigon Dark I never felt like I had the time to over-think what I was reading. In other words, the events move along rather quickly and Lily’s family dynamics are a constant source of tension and mystery for we keep on wondering whether someone will find out about her past and if she herself will be able to make her way out from underneath her own shadow.
The author knows to limit the focus on useless interactions between characters in favour of unfolding the threads, which also include blackmail, affairs, and even murder. There is even a mystery which becomes the main centre of attention a bit later in the book, and while its resolution wasn’t exactly mind-shattering, it remains quite powerful and hit home with me in some strange ways.
As you might expect with the nature of the plot taken into account, Elka Ray shares some unique perspectives on how fate tends to work in cruel and yet unexpectedly kind ways. She delves profoundly into Lily’s psyche, into how she manages the chaos in which her life has turned into, how she accepted a gift of fate in the form of the abused girl she adopted, right after it seemed to have torn everything away from her.
She explores the unintended and far-reaching consequences our actions might have, how our lives could easily intertwine with more people than we ever thought possible. The author doesn’t try to preach any morals or worldviews, but rather makes a statement about how we might find some stability and peace with our loved ones in the maelstrom of a bedlam we call life.
The Final Verdict
Saigon Dark by Elka Ray is a heavy type of novel with sombre and dramatic themes which pushes us to ponder how life works and where we fit into it. The story is engaging from start to finish and manages to stay fresh by adding new elements as move further in.
The characters are memorable and about as human as they get, especially Lily, our protagonist we can’t help but feel conflicted about. Additionally, it presents a nice little study regarding certain specific aspects of life in Vietnam, seamlessly woven in with the rest of the story. If you enjoy Noir dramas and mysteries, especially ones set in Asia, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a good read.
Elka Ray is an English-born author raised in Canada and Africa, currently living in Southeast Asia where she has spent over fifteen years of her life.
She is best-known for her novels Hanoi Jane and Saigon Dark, but has also written books for children including Vietnam A to Z. Her fiction writings draw heavily upon her first-hand experiences as a backpacker and resident in Asia.