The Deep Green Sea

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"A slim, erotic and fable-like . . . book that picks up on many of Butler's abiding themes—the legacy of the Vietnam War, the clash of Vietnam's folklore and mysticism with American manners . . . [Butler is] a writer working to cast a spell." —New York Times Book Review

"In a deceptively understated manner, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler introduces us to a pair of improbable modern lovers . . . [he] plants the seeds of a ...

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The Deep Green Sea

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"A slim, erotic and fable-like . . . book that picks up on many of Butler's abiding themes—the legacy of the Vietnam War, the clash of Vietnam's folklore and mysticism with American manners . . . [Butler is] a writer working to cast a spell." —New York Times Book Review

"In a deceptively understated manner, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler introduces us to a pair of improbable modern lovers . . . [he] plants the seeds of a tragedy that will haunt his readers long after they finish this lyrical love story." —People

In The Deep Green Sea, Robert Olen Butler has created an incandescent tale of modern love between a Vietnamese woman, orphaned in 1975 when Saigon fell to the Communists, and a Vietnam War veteran, returning from America to seek closure for decades-old emotional wounds. The more they nurture the love between them, the more they learn about each other, the more complex and dangerous their relationship becomes, and what follows conjures classical tragedy, infused with intense eroticism and with Butler’s reverence for Vietnamese mythology and history. The Deep Green Sea is a landmark work in the literature of love and war.

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Editorial Reviews

David Ulin

What's the role of fate in our lives? Is it an illusion, or something substantial, a force whose influence we truly can't escape? Living, as we do, in a rational universe, it's reassuring to believe the former, but, really, there's no way to be sure. As Robert Olen Butler writes in his eighth novel, The Deep Green Sea, "For a year, here in Vietnam, I woke up every day and I was scared and I could see people dying, or walking around and about to die, not even realizing what was next, though it was like it was all arranged somehow, because tomorrow's death roster was going to be whatever it was going to be, and it could be me who was chosen, and I never lost a sense of that."

In The Deep Green Sea the weight of destiny has a nearly physical pull. Moving fluidly between Benjamin Cole, a Vietnam vet who returns to Ho Chi Minh City after nearly 30 years to recapture a part of himself that "got stuck over here, [that] failed to make it onto the plane back home in 1967," and Tien, a Saigon tourist guide in her 20s who was abandoned by her prostitute mother on the eve of Saigon's liberation in 1975, the book traces a relationship that seems ordained by history itself. For Ben and Tien, this unexpected bond is a revelation, a promise that they still might be made complete, in spite of all they've lost. Yet as The Deep Green Sea progresses, their happiness is complicated by Ben's suspicion that the bar girl with whom he had an affair during the war might have been Tien's mother.

This, of course, is the stuff of classical tragedy, and Butler plays it up by peppering his narrative with references to Vietnamese mythology, most tellingly a legend about a dragon who came from the South China Sea and married a princess, with whom he populated the nation of Vietnam. Unfortunately, though tragedy should feel inevitable and universal, The Deep Green Sea mostly seems contrived. The novel's claustrophobic construction limits Butler's palette, and Ben and Tien are not only its narrators but, essentially, its only characters. His prose veers from starkly lucid to stereotypically sentimental, as if he were writing "The Bridges of Vietnam." Even more problematic, Butler telegraphs his intentions from the first page. That may be how fate works, but it doesn't make for compelling drama, and you can't help wishing he'd throw a curveball, if only to keep his readers on their toes.

Butler should know better -- he has won a Pulitzer Prize, after all. Certainly, Butler's effort to merge myth and history is a significant one, an attempt to frame a literature that has to do with more than telling stories, but speaks to the deepest core of who we are. That he falls short may be the true tragedy of this novel, and only makes its failure more profound. -- Salon

Library Journal
Butler has visited Vietnam many times in his fiction, eschewing blood and guts in favor of examining the hearts and minds of those affected by wartime. In his latest, a soul-searching veteran returns to Saigon in the 1990s and begins an affair with a young tourist guide, little knowing that they share a common link. The secret revealed in this novel will be no surprise to readers, especially since Butler telegraphs it throughout the story. What is amazing, though, is how delicately the author treads on this sensitive material, which in the wrong hands could easily have turned preposterous or laughable. The two principals alternately recount their affair, only slowly becoming aware of the imminent tragedy, which adds to the quiet poignancy of the tale. Interestingly, the most affecting passage comes not from the main story but from the soldier's recalling his father, a frustrated civilian during World War II who ever so gently coerced his son into signing up. A simple but eloquent novel; highly recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/97.]Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., Pa.
Boston Book Review
Robert Olen Butler is a virtuoso of fictional motivation, a writer who startling ability to get into his character's heads is at times indecent.
Michael Dorris
Butler writes spellbinding prose.
Chicago Tribune
Richard Eder
Butler writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
The Baltimore Sun
Robert Olen Butler stands alone as the most accomplished Vietnam War novelist.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802120960
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/23/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 976,709
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT OLEN BUTLER is the author of thirteen novels, six story collections, and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. In addition to a Pulitzer Prize and two National Magazine Awards, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and an NEA grant, as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
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First Chapter



There is a moment now, come suddenly upon us, when the sound of the motorbikes from the street has faded almost to silence, and I can smell, faintly, the incense I have burned, and I am naked at last. He is naked, too, though I still have not let my eyes move beyond his face and his arms and his hands. He is very gentle, very cautious, and to my surprise, I say, "I have never done this before."

I am lying on my bed and he is beside me and we are lit by neon from the hotel across the street and he has touched only my shoulders. His hands are moving there when I say these words, and they hesitate. There is also a hesitation in me. I hear what I have said. Some place inside me says these words are true, and some other place says that I am a liar.

I am twenty-six years old and I have been with two men in my life. But I was never with them in this bed, I was never with them in this room where I was a child of my grandmother, this room where I keep the altar to my dead father, and when I removed my clothes with these men, I did not feel I was naked with them, though I wished to be. There was fear in my heart and incomprehension in their eyes, and when we rose from the places where we touched, I felt nothing except that I was alone.

Until this moment with Ben, I have known how to understand that. I am a girl of this new Vietnam. I am not my mother, who is of a different Vietnam and who had her own fear and incomprehension with men, and who is far away from me. I am alone in this world but it is all right, I have always thought, because in a great socialist republic everyone is equal and each of us can find a place in the state that holds us all. There is no aloneness.

But everything is different now. I am suddenly different. I am naked. This is what I wish to tell him with my words. It is what I wish to tell myself.

There is a surge of sound in the room, the motorbikes again, the others going around and around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on a Saturday night, and I wish it was quiet again. I want to hear the sound of his breathing. I want to hear the faint stretching of him inside his skin as he lifts slightly away from me in thought and turns his head to the window.

His chest is naked and so is mine. I feel my nipples tighten at the thought of him and I want it to be quiet and I want the light to be better too. I want to look at his body, this part at least. No more for now. I want to start with this naked chest of his and also his hands, which I have been able to see for these past days but that I have not yet really looked at. I take one of these hands now in mine as he thinks about what I have said. I take it and in the cold red burning of the neon light I can see his thick hand. He worked once in the steel mills. He told me of their fire. He worked once driving a great truck many thousands of miles across his country, the United States of America, gripping the steering wheel of this truck, and I love the corded veins here as I hold his hand. "It is all right," I say. I lift his hand and put it on my chest. I cover my yearning nipple.

I look down at his hand on me and it is very large and my own hands are small and my fingers are slender and his are not, his are thick and his skin in the light from the moon and the hotel across the street seems pale and mine seems darker. I am Vietnamese. Every Vietnamese child hears the tale of how our country began. Once long ago a dragon who was the ruler of all the oceans lived in his palace in the deep deep bottom of the South China Sea. He grew very lonely, so he rose up from the sea and flew to the land, the rich jungles and mountains and plains that are now our Vietnam. And there he met a fairy princess. A very beautiful princess. And they fell in love. This is the thing that is told to us so easily and no one ever questions her mother or her grandmother or her aunt or her friend hiding with her in the dark roots of a banyan tree, even here in Saigon, the great banyan tree in the park on Dong Khoi that was there a hundred years before the revolution. I heard the story there, on the street, and you never think to ask whoever is telling you, How did this happen? How did this feeling happen between two such different creatures? My friend Diep, who was also the daughter of a prostitute, but one who did not flee, who did not give her daughter over to what she saw was a better life, my friend whispered this story to me and a stripe of light lay on her face through the cords of the roots in the banyan and she said that the fairy princess and the dragon fell in love and they married and then she laid a hundred eggs in a beautiful silk bag. And I said only, Yes, like I understood such a thing. I said, Did he love her very much? Yes. Diep said. Very Much.

And the princess had one hundred children. And there was no childhood for them. They grew instantly upon birth into very beautiful adults. Diep told me that they were both princes and princesses. Fifty boys and fifty girls. For a while they all lived together and the fairy princess was happy and the children were happy. But the dragon was not. He missed the sea and one day the fairy princess woke and he was gone. He had returned to his palace beneath the water. She understood. She tried to live on without him. But it was very difficult because she was very much in love with him. And so she called him back. I do not know how. I did not think to ask. Somehow he knew to come back and yet he could not stay. He told her that their differences were too great. He could not be happy in the land. He had to return to his palace, though he promised that if she ever knew any danger or terrible hardship he would come back to help. So he took fifty of their children with him and he returned to the sea. And she took fifty of their children with her to the mountains. And these children became the people of Vietnam.

It seemed a very beautiful sad story to me. And I came home to the very room that I lie in with this man. Years ago in this place I came home to my grandmother and I told her the story and she said that it was true.

No. Not my grandmother. She and I lived in this room for most of the time I was a child. But I heard about the dragon and the fairy princess before that. I came to my mother, and that was near to this place but not in this room, and I was perhaps seven years old, and I told her the story and she said it was true. But she corrected one thing. They were all sons. A hundred sons. And the eldest of them became the first king of Vietnam. I did not ask anything more, questions I now have that roll in me and break in me more strongly than the waves of the dragon's precious sea. It is this that I wonder as I hold this man's hand in my bed: how did she look upon her dragon when she first lay with him? Did the princess take the great scaled hand of this creature that she was loving so strongly even then, ready as she was to open her body to him, did she put her tiny, silken hands on his and did she pass her fingers softly over the layers of his hard flesh still smelling of the sea, did she touch the tips of his claws, did she look into his great red eyes and see all the gentleness that she had dreamed for? And surely the answer is yes. Surely that is what she did.

I cannot see Ben's eyes. Not the color of them. Not what might be there of his heart. He turns his face to me when I lead him to touch my breast and there is only shadow where his eyes are and I cannot see. But I feel him through his hand. He is very gentle in this place of steel mills and trucks and I know he likes the touch of me and I know this even though he lifts his hand now. Just the tiniest bit so that he does not touch me with his flesh, but I can still feel the heat of him. "Are you sure?" he says. He believes this thing I have said about myself. I believe it, too. And I am sure of this: with this man, I am naked and I do not feel as if I am alone. "Yes," I say, and he puts his hand on me but not over my nipple. He puts his hand in the center of my chest, between my breasts, and the tip of his middle finger is in the hollow of my throat. It feels as if he touches my whole body with his palm and I do not know what is to come and I tell myself I do not care.

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, January 20th, welcomed Robert Olen Butler to discuss THE DEEP GREEN SEA.

Moderator: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler is joining tonight to discuss his latest work, THE DEEP GREEN SEA. A lyrical work of love and tragedy set in present-day Vietnam, this novel strikes deep as it elucidates the still-present pain of a peaceful land grappling with a violent past. Thank you for joining us tonight, Mr. Butler. We're thrilled to have you with us. And Happy Birthday!

Robert Olen Butler: I'm delighted to be here. I am an avid Web browser and pleased that some of my recent fiction has appeared first on the Web -- at Mississippi Review and Nerve magazine. And I have a home page at Web del Sol []. I'm looking forward to the questions tonight.

Benjamin from Nashville, TN: Mr. Butler, you write a good deal of erotic fiction. Your words are especially vivid in their romantic and sensual detail. Is this something you just feel, or is it something you had to learn? Basically, did you have to fall in love yourself before you could write this way?

Robert Olen Butler: I think all writing that aspires to art must come from the writer's unconscious. Art is not created from the writer's rational, ideational mind but from the writer's dream space. So, yes. All the themes of my work come from the rich mix of my own life experience, driven deep into my unconscious. Which is not to say that my work is autobiographical. Only the things that the writer forgets about the literal past can be effectively used in creating a work of art.

Yvonne Ortiz from Tallahassee, FL: Did you grow up in Louisiana? I am wondering how you came to teaching at McNeese State. Ever thought about teaching anywhere else?

Robert Olen Butler: I grew up in a steel mill town in the Midwest -- Granite City, Illinois, which is just across the river from St. Louis. I've been in Louisiana for 13 years. I came here as a release from the Long Island Rail Road. I was working in the late '70s and into the mid-'80s as the editor in chief of a business newspaper. I lived in Sea Cliff, Long Island, and commuted every day to Manhattan. Every word of my first four novels was written on legal pads by hand on my lap on the Long Island Rail Road. Finally I got my Ph.D. at the University of Knopf that is, I had enough publishing credits to teach at a university without an academic Ph.D. and the McNeese job was the one that was available. I was very fortunate. I love McNeese and I love Louisiana. After the Pulitzer I had many job feelers come my way but I turned them all aside.

Anna from Manchester, VT: I can't think of any other writer who deals with Vietnam in the same sense that you do -- lyrically, with little of the violence and battles of the typical mass-market characterizations e.g. Oliver Stone. Why do you think your point of view is so different?

Robert Olen Butler: The difference in my writing comes from the fact that I spoke fluent Vietnamese from my first day in Vietnam. The Army had sent me to language school for a full year before I went over. I submerged myself in the Vietnamese culture and landscape while I was there, and the Vietnamese people, I think, are among the warmest and most generous-spirited in the world. They invited me over and over into their culture and into their lives as I did my favorite thing -- wandering the steamy back alleys of Saigon after midnight almost every night. My point of view is also different because I'm not really writing about the war or even Vietnam, per se. I was asked once how I saw myself as a "Vietnam novelist," and I answered that I am a Vietnam novelist the way Monet is a "lily-pad painter." My true interest is in the universal human condition.

Rick from Mr. Butler, I am a big fan and am eager to read this new novel. Did you do any research, traveling to Vietnam to write this book? What were your impressions, if you did, which I assume you did?

Robert Olen Butler: I went back to Vietnam in 1993 and again in 1995. But it wasn't "research" in the usual sense of the word. I went back and submerged myself once more in the culture and the sensual flow of life in Vietnam. My impressions are probably too long to go into here, though I can say that the vitality and the warmth of the Vietnamese are undiminished and in many respects the country bears little resemblance to a communist country now. You can read an article on my trip at my page at the Web del Sol Web site.

Barbara from Red Lodge, MTMr.: Mr. Butler, I'm thrilled you took my question! I've been a follower of your work for years! Your descriptive prose is so simple, and incredibly resonant. Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to construct believable description?

Robert Olen Butler: A work of art is an organic whole, and so believable description must resonate with all the other elements in the piece. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, art comes from the unconscious, and the unconscious is entirely sensual. You need to ravenously store up sense impressions and then call them up in the trancelike state of creation, working from the dream space and not the analytical mind.

Owen from Langston, KS: Do you write daily? What's a usual writing schedule for you?

Robert Olen Butler: Yes, I write daily. I think that is absolutely necessary for a fiction writer who aspires to art. The connection you must make to your unconscious is hard to forge and intimidating to maintain, but if you go back every day, it is somewhat less difficult. If I stop writing in the midst of a project for even three or four days, the connection to the unconscious seals itself up, and I feel as if I've never written a word before in my entire life.

Jim and Justine from Nashville: Hi, Bob. It was great to see you at ALA in New Orleans. We look forward to seeing you again in Nashville. What was your first reaction when you heard you had won the Pulitzer Prize? Does winning the prize really help much with book sales?

Robert Olen Butler: Hi, Jim and Justine. My first reaction to the Pulitzer was twofoldI was unspeakably astonished the short list of the Pulitzer is never made public, and so I didn't even know I was in the final running and I was struck by a sudden and long-forgotten feeling that there might be some justice in the literary universe after all.

Everett from Albany, NY: Your work incorporates a good deal of Vietnamese mythology the jasmine flower and the marriage of the dragon and the princess. I loved the inclusion -- it truly fit the tone of Ben and Tien's romance. Tien often "invokes" mythology when she has a moment of uncertainty. What value does myth have to her? And to you generally?

Robert Olen Butler: For Tien and for me and for our culture, and all cultures in all times, myth represents our deep impulse to take the feelings and concerns of our individual private lives--feelings and concerns which we deeply fear are ultimately insignificant--and to project them into persons and events and situations that are grand in scale. That way we feel that our quotidian lives are part of something universal and significant. I felt the same thing about the tabloids I used in my last book of stories, TABLOID DREAMS.

BDT from Denver, CO: Mr. Butler, do you have any favorite books that you reread year after year?

Robert Olen Butler: I read my wife's work over and over. Her name is Elizabeth Dewberry -- her two novels, MANY THINGS HAVE HAPPENED SINCE HE DIED and BREAK THE HEART OF ME, were published under her old name of Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn. In fact, we fell in love with each other reading each other's books before we ever met. Of the classics, I return to Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce before ULYSSES and Charles Dickens. When I have the time, that is. My reading has suffered in recent years from my brutally busy schedule. And I am a very, very slow reader of fiction. I must read fiction at a speed that allows me to hear the narrative voice in my head. That means slow.

Doug from Boca Raton, FL: I think reconciliation is a common theme in most people's lives whether it's about reconciling your beliefs with the religion you were raised with or old traditions with new ones. Tien grapples with past and present, as does Ben. My question for you is, Is reconciliation possible? Is it possible to mediate the old and the new?

Robert Olen Butler: Your question is a good one, but as an artist it is hard for me to answer you in an abstract or philosophical way. My answer is in the body of my work. And even there, I don't want a reader to understand my work in a rational way; I want a reader to thrum to my work. To resonate to it. But I think I can say I do believe in reconciliation, though it is often won only against severe odds and after serious hardship.

Glenn from Fairfax, VA: Unlike many vets, Ben seems to have a rather pleasant recollection of Saigon, or at least he's at peace with his past. But his idyllic reckoning turns quite ugly at the end. What point were you making? I love your work!

Robert Olen Butler: As I said in a previous answer, I hesitate to restate my work in abstract or philosophical terms. The "point" an artist makes is to articulate a vision of the world not through ideas but through the reshaping of moment-to-moment sensual experience into an organically whole and resonating object that is a novel or story. But I will point out that haste and self-deception have for millennia been common character traits in tragically fated characters in literature.

Moderator: Thank you for coming online tonight, Mr. Butler. How would you sum up our conversation?

Robert Olen Butler: I was very impressed by the thoughtful questions that were asked. I hope those who sought a clearer analytical explication of the work will understand why I sidestepped a bit in my answers. The questions were good ones. Fruitful philosophical discussion can often flow from works of art. But when all is said and done, I urge readers to return to the aesthetic response in their reading. Fiction is a mode of discourse and a way of "knowing" about the world that is different from any other. The biggest questions of existence are addressed in art, and part of the answer art provides is that the intellect is finite. The sensual self, the dream space, the intuitive spiritual parts of the reader are capable of ways of understanding far beyond the grasp of the mind. These are the parts of the reader that must engage the work of literary fiction. In this way the reader shares in a mutually created experience.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2003

    a great and enjoyable book

    this is a great book that keeps you in your toes. Its a great story specialy the love scene in which you feel part of the momentum. it teaches you about the two different worlds between two people whom love each other and the biggest struggle you could ever imagine overcoming.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2002

    Lisa's One-Minute Review:Silhouettes in Smoke

    This is a haunting, erotic novel which feels like an adult faerie seizing stories from Vietnamese folklore, and history, Mr. Butler creates a myth of Greek proportions... The love between an older American ex-G.I., and the young Tien, is told by alternating between his thoughts and her's.The ex-G.I. is in Vietnam to heal old wounds; Tien is a tour guide of "this new Republic of Vietnam"(Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon). It is the image of the city, and its despair, and attempts to renew itself, that echo beautifully Tien and her own pain, as well as her older lover, and his... This story is not for the weak---it is a story that deals with pure, sensual attraction--- lust--- the very real currency, in human terms, of what it is to fall in love, suddenly, with little reason.The need for such acting out of fantasy reveals itself, however, with tragic results. The bittersweet post-script to Robert Olen Butler's tale is the image of incense seeping upwards towards the heavens; it is an apt metaphor for the effect he has on his readers:We feel the need to speak aloud the words, lest they escape from us, and leave us to wait and hope for other bits to curl 'round us, like smoke, and cloak us in their warmth.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2002

    Way Too Predictable

    The Deep Green Sea is a novel set in present-day Vietnam. The story focuses on a love affair between a middle-aged American, Benjamin Cole, a Vietnam veteran, and a young Vietnamese woman, Le Thi Tien. Returning to Ho Chi Minh City thirty years after the war, Ben meets Tien, a woman who finds herself trapped between the Vietnam of the past and the Vietnam of the present. In 1966, Ben was in Saigon driving trucks for the Unites States Army. The story takes place almost thirty years later, when Ben returns to Ho Chi Minh City and meets (and falls in love with) Tien, who finds herself trapped between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and the policies of the new Communist state. Butler, a master of first-person narration, alternates this story between the sensuous and lyrical voices of Ben and Tien as he explores the conflicts inherent in the old and the new Vietnam and as the couple struggle to find their own special place in the world. Even though Vietnam is a place of horror and violence for Ben, he comes to feel at home with Tien, more so than he ever felt with his own family in Midwest America. Living in a tiny apartment in Saigon, Tien works for the government as a guide for foreign tourists. Outwardly conservative, she appears to follow all Communist Party guidelines, however, Tien is a woman secretly longing for the intimacy and passion that only sexual and emotional fulfillment can bring. Ben and Tien are both a bit of the misfit, the outcast. Tien's mother, a prostitute, fled Vietnam when the Communists gained control and left Tien with her grandmother. And, although Tien grew up believing her father to be dead, she often feels his presence near her. Far too much of this book takes place in the bedroom, as Ben and Tien consummate their new-found love. And, as we learn the story of Ben and his years in Vietnam during the war, we also come to sense the ending of the story, many, many pages before it actually arrives. James Olen Butler, however, is a wonderful writer and this book, although thin on plot and character, is still wonderfully written. Some of the best images are contained in Tien's descriptions of traditional Vietnamese religion, folklore and mythology. Butler is a writer who is sensitive to the problems in Vietnam and the longterm effects of war, on both a country and on individuals. I would recommend his Pulitzer Prize winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, however. The Deep Green Sea, although moody and atmospheric and certainly well-written, is just too trite and predictable to be worthwhile. Two stars for the quality of the writing, but that is all I can justify.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2001

    Do you like sex and war?

    Robert olen Butler in my mind is the best vietnam writer ever. I read this book for school, and I choose it because it like war novels. Although there were not many war or action scenes I managed to say interested.

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