BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming the Enemy by David Metzenthen
Allen & Unwin
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult / War
Two young Vietnam War veterans who fought on opposing sides return home, struggling to recover from their experience. A moving story of trauma, resilience and the challenging road to recovery.
I am still moving despite the fact that this dreamed-up bastard Khan walks with me – no, he doesn’t walk with me, he rises up to fire, has my life in his hands, my head in his sights, and that is the image of all images that I have somehow to lose.
Johnny Shoebridge has just returned from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. He no longer carries a weapon – only photos of the dead and a dread of the living.
Pursued by a Viet Cong ghost-fighter called Khan, Johnny makes one last stand – knowing that if he cannot lay this spectre to rest, he will remain a prisoner of war for ever.
Drawing on courage, loyalty and love, Johnny tries to find a way back from the nightmare of war to a sense of hope for the future.
An elegant and deeply moving novel, set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, by one of Australia’s finest writers.
In the instance of Dreaming the Enemy, however, I can appreciate what the author was going for. There is a disconnection here between the reader and the characters, and the story is told in a cold and passive way with lots of telling and very little, if any, showing. It follows a non-linear path that makes it hard to tell what’s now and what’s then, what’s really happening, and what’s in Johnny’s imagination.
Seeing as this is a story about a character suffering from PTSD in a time before it was a recognised disorder, it’s quite possible that this disconnect was done intentionally, and done well. In leaving the reader unable to connect with Johnny, Metzenthen echoes Johnny’s own struggles to connect with those who had been such an important part of his life before the war.
But this doesn’t make for an easy or enjoyable read, and it doesn’t make the struggle to read it any more rewarding.
The writing was just a little too unfeeling, and the resulting story feels like it’s tripping over, and repeatedly stubbing its toe on, the point it’s trying to make.
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