Chris Johnson, June 6, 2008 (view all comments by Chris Johnson)
When I travel abroad I usually try to read books, especially novels, by local authors. Occasionally there is a book so good that I just can't believe it is not available in the US. I have been spending a lot of time in Australia recently, where the per-capita production of quality fiction has to be the highest in the world. On a recent trip to Tasmania, I picked up two books by Christopher Koch.
Koch, if he is known at all here in the States, is known as the author of The Year of Living Dangerously, a novel set in Indonesia and made into an excellent movie. As good as that book (and movie) is, Highways to a War and its companion volume Out of Ireland are even better.
Highways to a War begins with the disappearance of Mike Langford in Cambodia in 1976, after the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country. Langford is a famous war photographer with a dangerously romantic affection for southeast Asia and its people. The book is narrated by Ray Barton, an old friend of Langford, who undertakes to find out whether Langford is dead or alive. The story is told through Barton's narration, his interviews with Langford's colleagues, and transcripts of tapes Langford has sent to Barton for safekeeping. Through these devices, we get the back story not only of Langford's experiences in war-torn Vietnam and Cambodia, but also his childhood in Tasmania.
I am no expert on the Vietnam war, or the novels that it has inspired. But I simply cannot imagine a better portrayal of the daily life of soldiers, journalists, and citizens than what is found in these pages. The drugs, the adrenaline, the blood, the boredom, the hope, and the despair are all here. On top of all that, Koch weaves a web of intrigue that leaves the reader with a sinking feeling about the nature of Langford's disappearance, a feeling that makes the story's ending as unsettling and powerful as any I have ever read.
Read this book and share it with a friend. And keep your eyes open for other books by this great Australian writer.
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