It’s appropriate to feel skeptical when first learning the concept behind Alice McDermott’s “Absolution.” The story, written by a white woman, focuses on the lives of the wives and daughters of American military advisors during the advent of the Vietnam War. Our narrator, the Irish-Catholic newlywed Patricia joins her husband, sent as a military engineer to a mid-war 1963 Saigon, and becomes entangled in fellow American wife Charlene’s plot to fundraise for local Vietnamese women.
If this seems like a played-out trope, it’s because it is: Countless books, movies and TV shows follow a similar story. A well-intentioned white woman protagonist travels to a distant land, sees horrors, feels bad about herself, then triumphantly decides to do something about it, saving the day with her altruistic self-actualization. These stories are boring, overdone and often racist in their implications of moral leadership as a quality only found within whiteness, implicitly subjugating their non-white characters both in and out of text. With a plot built out of a mold like that, how can we expect “Absolution” to have anything worthwhile to say?
The miracle is that McDermott pulls it off. She does a magic trick: While you’re distracted by a complex plot concerning the stifling conditions of women in mid-century America, she deconstructs the very meaning of white saviorism as a concept, breaking it down to its most basic elements. This is a story that has little to do with the joy of helping others and more to do with the profound guilt that comes with awareness of the wretchedness of the world.
Patricia and Charlene are not good people. Their efforts to “do something” exploit the very people they give to. In order to fundraise for toys, clothing and gifts for the women and children of Saigon, the women use the labor of their hired help. Even when it becomes clear that their selflessness isn’t as benevolent as it seems, they continue, letting their increasingly extreme actions of altruism spiral into destruction. The parallel between this fundraising and the American military operations their husbands arrived in the country for is purposeful and effective. Even as this dawns on them, the holes they dig for themselves only get bigger. What else can they do?
The novel takes every chance it can to express the lack of agency the women face. The only thing they are allowed to do is care, care, care — for their husbands, children, fathers and relatives — so when stuck in a foreign land, they have one autonomous path for finding purpose. Sainthood and martyrdom are the ultimate achievements a woman could have at the time. These insights help a reader understand, if not agree with, the women’s actions. It’s an admirable feat.
The structural choices of the novel might be the most vital to its success. Even taken in complete isolation, the prose of McDermott’s novel is easy to praise. Every word feels meticulously chosen. The style of the book — Patricia and Charlene’s daughter Rainey’s recountings of their lives during and after their time in Vietnam are told through long, exhaustive letters — plays to McDermott’s strengths as a writer.
As the women recount their experiences in piecemeal chunks, the novel has the freedom to spend its word count on only its most interesting moments, skipping over the rest with narrative ease. This choice can be difficult to implement in a way that feels realistic. After all, who writes letters to friends the same way a novelist describes their scenes? But the voices of Patricia and Rainey never get lost in the prose. The fact that they are writing in a spur-of-the-moment fashion is constantly emphasized. Words get reused in the same paragraph, metaphors are formatted similarly time after time and details of events are revisited pages after they occur. Yet the language is delightful. McDermott luxuriates in her word choices, allowing her characters to spend paragraphs indulging in the extreme beauty and extreme horror of their time in Vietnam.
Most importantly, the letters allow McDermott to walk the tightrope of nuanced reflection required for a story like this. Patricia is an old woman writing about herself in her 20s, and she comes off as regretful of her naivety as she is unwilling to address the full extent of harm she and her countrymen caused overseas. It’s a strategic choice: McDermott may not have the capabilities to address the nuance of the geopolitical conflict of the time, but neither does Patricia. Any ignorance falls within character and allows the story to feel confident in its portrayals of a lived experience.
This is the key difference between “Absolution” and other historical fiction written about the Vietnam War. Ironically, this is not really a book about Vietnam. When Tricia, Charlene and Rainey grapple with the nature of what it means to be good in a world with such atrocities, the specificities of the war become background noise to the women’s own internal struggles. The only real horrors detailed are those they are forced to come into contact with directly. The same applies to the people whose home the Americans have invaded: Vietnamese women are given little to no characterization, a fact that the narrative comments on explicitly. The Americans tried their best to not think of them, and so their time in their memoirs is brief. While this is an intentional choice that works to further the goals of the novel, the lack of these voices is disappointing. “Absolution” achieves its purpose, but should not be taken as a new quintessential Vietnam novel; its scope is much too limited for this.
The points that the novel makes aren’t groundbreaking, but in its context, they feel fresh and revelatory. Toward the end of the book, Rainey steps in, writing back to Patricia with an update on her modern American life. The section is jarring at first and can seem disconnected from the story told from 1963 up to this point. The thematic weight, however, does heavy lifting: Even though their circumstances are vastly different, the women come to the same conclusions. Trying to save the world in the abstract does nothing. It’s actions made without ego — for the people that we really love — that matter. Attempts to absolve oneself completely are as selfish as they are fruitless. The epigraph perfectly paraphrases this sentiment: In the end, there is no one to say sorry to.
Daily Arts Contributor Grace Sielinski can be reached at email@example.com.