After the international success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, memoirs of dysfunctional childhoods have become as common as weeds. Danielle Trussoni’s début work sets her apart from the throng of eager chroniclers of depressing upbringings; it is both uncommonly well-written and refreshingly free of self-pity.
Trussoni weaves together three chronological strands; her father’s experiences as a US infantryman in Vietnam, her own childhood, and her journey as an adult to Vietnam, to try to make sense of her father’s life and her own.
Danielle’s father Dan had been a ‘tunnel-rat’, a volunteer who descended into the honeycomb of subterranean passages created by the North Vietnamese and fought vicious hand-to-hand combat in the claustrophobic darkness.
Against suicidal odds, Dan Trussoni survived and returned to America, living a typical suburban life with his wife and three children. The scars of the war cut deep, though, and his erratic behaviour and heavy drinking led to Danielle’s mother leaving him. Opting to stay with her father, Danielle’s world, aged 11, was one of smoky bar-rooms, transitory women, and endless yarns of Vietnam. Her account of this boozy, peripatetic lifestyle is shot through with wit and a luminous love for her difficult, damaged father.
The final thread of the book – Danielle’s trip to contemporary Vietnam – is the least successful and occasionally reads like the standard ‘American abroad’ travelogue. If she had extended her empathy to the Vietnamese – both those her father fought and those who later welcomed her to their ravaged, beautiful country – then she would have widened the resonance of her book beyond what is an engaging family memoir, to something grander and more universal.Peter Whittaker