Picks and Pans Review: Shallow Graves Two Women and Vietnam

updated 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Wendy Wilder Larsen and Tarn Thi Nga

Both books focus on a relationship between an American woman and a refugee from Southeast Asia. Sheehy (Morrow, $17.95) however has thrown everything into her account except a financial disclosure statement. She romanticizes the "man of my life" (editor-husband Clay Felker) in the kind of sentimental way that belongs on greeting cards. She overdramatizes her natural daughter Maura's departure for college as if it were a bitter divorce. Worse, Sheehy puts herself in the kind of self-indulgent spotlight more appropriate to an 18-year-old starlet. The book changes dramatically when Sheehy turns to the young Cambodian she first met while on assignment inside a refugee camp in Thailand. The girl, whom Sheehy and Felker are adopting, is Phat Mohm. Her story—from age 5—is absorbing, overflowing with insights about the nature of self, family and a society gone berserk. During the Pol Pot regime, the girl's family was murdered. Through her eyes a reader experiences the chaos of Cambodia. "The soldier lift up his gun and hold out his arms stiff, shoot up and down the house and shoot holes right through that woman. Her baby roll down the street... I walk away from the soldiers, really shaking. I feel in my back, are they going to shoot me?" It is just too bad Sheehy couples Mohm's remarkable tale with her own soppy memoir. Wendy Wilder went to Vietnam in 1970 when her husband, Jon Larsen (they have since divorced), became TIME bureau chief in Saigon. While he covered the war, Wendy taught English literature at Saigon's School of Pedagogy. Tran Thi Nga, who was born into a privileged class, worked as a bookkeeper at the TIME bureau. She befriended her boss's wife, who was the new girl on a very strange block. When Saigon fell, Nga fled to New York, where the two women met again. Out of their experiences comes the surprisingly lovely Shallow Graves (Random House, $16.95), a collection of verse and letters. Nga's story is by far the richer. The daughter of a Vietnamese education minister, she became the reluctant bride of a general after World War II and after his death became the second wife of her sister's husband. Her saga is really better suited to prose and shouldn't have been shoehorned by Larsen into verse form simply for uniformity with her own graceful, ironic poetry: "I taught the Elizabethan concept of order in Macbeth/... while we defoliated their land/napalmed their children/burned their villages to save them." Larsen writes of a visit to an opium den, shopping expeditions, students, servants, journalists, as well as the war. A few of her poems are slight and flat-footed, but for the most part Shallow Graves offers an evocative, personal look at a turbulent time.

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