Charles Boatman, an aging Vietnam veteran, returns to Vietnam to come to terms with his time as an American soldier in the Vietnam war. When Charles disappears, his 27 year old daughter, Ada, and 25 year old son, Jon, make the trip themselves to try and find answers. The novel flits back and forth between Charles’ story and Ada’s. With Charles we get some of the fairly predictable elements for a Vietnam war novel- his time in Vietnam as young man, his marriage and how it fell apart, his time in Vietnam in the present. With Ada, we trace her journey as she attempts to understand her father, who rarely talked about Vietnam but which in hindsight seems to have consumed such a large part of his life story.
The plot is not complicated, and the ‘mystery’ resolves well before the end of the novel, after which we follow Ada’s own resolution. The novel is a mediation on war and the horrible things done it, as well as memory and family.
The Time in Between won the Giller Prize, Canada’s top literary prize, in 2005, so my expectations were high. I was disappointed. There was nothing egregiously wrong with this novel, but it also didn’t feel fresh. I’m assuming this felt more pertinent at the time, and that in the 15 years since it won the Giller our cultural landscape on troubled wars has told me this story many times already. In particular, I kept thinking of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried- similar melancholic tone, but came out in 1994. I appreciated O’Brien’s language and descriptions of Vietnam but I found myself largely underwhelmed.