Time in Betweenby David Bergen
When he disappears, his daughter Ada, and her brother, Jon, travel to
In search of love, absolution, or forgiveness, Charles Boatman leaves the Fraser Valley of British Columbia and returns mysteriously to Vietnam, the country where he fought twenty-nine years earlier as a young, reluctant soldier. But his new encounters seem irreconcilable with his memories.
When he disappears, his daughter Ada, and her brother, Jon, travel to Vietnam, to the streets of Danang and beyond, to search for him. Their quest takes them into the heart of a country that is at once incomprehensible, impassive, and beautiful. Chasing her father’s shadow for weeks, following slim leads, Ada feels increasingly hopeless. Yet while Jon slips into the urban nightlife to avoid what he most fears, Ada finds herself growing closer to her missing father — and strong enough to forgive him and bear the heartbreaking truth of his long-kept secret.
Bergen’s marvellously drawn characters include Lieutenant Dat, the police officer who tries to seduce Ada by withholding information; the boy Yen, an orphan, who follows Ada and claims to be her guide; Jack Gouds, an American expatriate and self-styled missionary; his strong-willed and unhappy wife, Elaine, whose desperate encounters with Charles in the days before his disappearance will always haunt her; and Hoang Vu, the artist and philosopher who will teach Ada about the complexity of love and betrayal. We also come to learn about the reclusive author Dang Tho, whose famous wartime novel pulls at Charles in ways he can’t explain.
Moving between father and daughter, the present and the past, The Time in Between is a luminous, unforgettable novel about one family, two cultures, and a profound emotional journey in search of elusive answers.
“A beautifully composed, unflinching and harrowing story. Perhaps the best fiction yet to confront and comprehend the legacy of Vietnam.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[Bergen] preserves the exquisiteness of the Vietnamese culture, lending a unique beauty to the story. Highly recommended.”
“Bergen’s best writing evokes the absence of what has been lost and, even more terribly, what is not there to be found.”
-Globe and Mail
“With his thoughtful dialogue, Bergen makes the characters’ heartache seep off the page.”
“David Bergen is a master of taut, spare prose that’s both erotic and hypnotic. Set mostly in modern-day Viet Nam, The Time In-Between is a deeply moving meditation on love and loss, truth and its elusiveness, and a compelling portrait of a haunted man, Charles Boatman, and his daughter who seeks to solve the mystery of his disappearance.”
–Miriam Toews, author of A Complicated Kindness
“David Bergen’s The Time In-Between is about how children inherit their parents’ ghosts and the elusive nature of grace. It also makes a stunning connection between the wars that are fought out in the world, and the ones that cleave families in private. Ravishingly told and deeply felt, it’s a huge accomplishment.”
–Michael Redhill, author of Martin Sloane
“The Time In-Between is a spare, suspenseful meditation on the long reach of war – to the places where it is fought, the people who fight it, and the people who love those people. In portraying the lingering devastation left in one soldier’s life by a war he fought a generation ago, Bergen’s novel could not be timelier or more chilling.”
–Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me
“In this elegant novel, David Bergen weaves a precise and resonant prose through the connected histories of people touched by love, death and war. A lovely, sad, and ultimately redeeming work of fiction.”
–Brady Udall, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
“Intelligent, humane, deep in its sympathetic understanding, David Bergen’s novel explores the haunted life of the Boatman family in the late aftermath of the Vietnam War. There is in this novel not a single sentimental or euphemistic line; and because the writing is honest, the characters are real, and their struggle as a family has the ring of truth.”
–Donald Pfarrer, The Fearless Man: a Novel of Vietnam
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Read an Excerpt
Bergen: THE TIME IN BETWEEN
the room was full of light. from the window they could see the port and the fishing boats and the oil tankers, and at night, when it was clear and calm, the lights of the squid boats far out at sea were like bright stars. In the afternoon, as the sun descended and the air cooled, they left their room and climbed the stairs to the hotel rooftop, where Jon lay on the hammock and read while Ada looked out over the city. There were the broad streets and the cement electrical poles and the palms and far off to the south the tennis courts, where a group of schoolboys in their white shirts and blue shorts played soccer, the bright smack of the ball carrying up to the roof.
The night before, she had dreamed of her father. A clear, pitch-perfect dream in which her father had been smiling from a distance and waving at her to come. “Come,” he had cried out, and Ada had toddled forward and fallen on her face. She woke from the dream and heard the fan spinning slowly above her bed, and beyond, through the window, there was a flash of lightning and then thunder. She called out to Jon, said his name several times, but he slept on. She got up and went to the bathroom, and when she came back she stood by the window and watched the night. The neon sign of the hotel sent a glow back onto her face; blue and white and then blue again. She opened the window halfway and leaned out and saw two men walking arm in arm on the street below. They were singing and then talking and then singing again. The men had seemed harmless and the singing was especially musical.
Now, watching the soccer players, Ada turned to Jon and told him about the dream. “I tried to wake you. I hate dreaming about him. Either he disappears or he turns away or I end up cutting off my arms to try to get his attention.”
Jon closed his book. He looked at Ada, and then after a long while he said, “I’m glad that I don’t dream about him. The lieutenant yesterday, Mr. Dat, said that he couldn’t be sure but he thought that we wouldn’t find him. I didn’t really understand everything he said. He was using this garbled combination of French and Vietnamese and English and he kept saying va, va and oui, oui, and at one point I went va and he smiled and said, ‘You speak our language.’ He has beautiful hands. His wrists are thin and the nail on his little finger is long. He said Dad’s dead.” Jon paused and laid the book on the table. “I asked him if he had ever met our father, or seen him around town when he lived here during that month. He looked at me and then he said, ‘Not yet.’ It was the oddest thing. I wasn’t sure if it was a language problem or if he was playing a game. What does that mean? Not yet.”
Ada leaned forward and stubbed her cigarette on the cement floor. She said, “You didn’t hit on him. I hope you didn’t do that.” Jon raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear what I said?”
“I heard. He has to make a living and we’re not paying him anything and if we did he’d throw clues our way. That’s what he was doing, giving you some hope so that you would offer him some financial reward.” She waved her hand up at the sky. There was a hazy whitish ring around the sun. “The thing is, Jon, you have to be careful here. How do you know that your proclivities will be tolerated?” She closed her eyes sleepily and then opened them and smiled as if pleased by her question.
He rose and stood over her. He whispered in her ear, “I don’t. And I am being careful. Very.”
She loved his smell, the smooth skin of his face after he had shaved. “This trip has become a joke,” she said. “For three weeks now we’ve searched uselessly, and here we are, back at this hotel with nothing except what we came with; a tattered photograph of him and our bags and the clothes we wear. We’re running out of money.”
Jon was dismissive. “Del will put more into the account. She said it wasn’t a problem. She just has to ask Tomas.”
Ada said, “Haven’t you noticed how utterly privileged and fat we are?”
“We?” Jon said. “Fat?”
“I mean the tourists, like us. Those big groups that climb off the buses by the Empire Hotel and then stand around and sweat and wave brochures in front of their faces and call out for each other and then drink iced tea in the air-conditioned café.”
Jon smiled. “Don’t worry, Ada,” he said. “You’re not like everyone else.”
She ignored him and said that she was going over to My Khe. She was hot, and tired of walking around town. There was nothing more to be done. She wanted to swim and asked if he would come with her.
He said that he didn’t like swimming there. The undertow scared him.
Ada went into the bathroom and changed into her bathing suit. She put on shorts and a long-sleeved top and leather sandals; carried a bag with a book and bottled water and an apple, under her arm a small mat. She wore a straw hat with a wide brim. She studied herself in the mirror and experienced a moment of hope.
on the ferry that took her to my khe, a boy sat down beside her and asked her name. Before she could answer he said that his name was Yen and he was fourteen, maybe, and where did she come from? His hands were dirty, as if he had been repairing something, a bicycle or an engine, and when he saw her studying his hands he put them under his bare thighs and said that he was a mechanic for the ferryman, but only when it was necessary. And today it was necessary. He grinned and shrugged. He said that he had plans to be a lawyer, not a mechanic, though he did know how to fix many kinds of engines. Diesel, two stroke, fuel injected, combustion. He lifted one hand and raised his fingers as he rolled out the list, then put his hand back under his leg. He said that his father was the man who ran the ferry.
“Do you have a motorcycle?” he asked.
She said she didn’t.
He nodded. “Would you like one?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“And, excuse me, your name?”
“That is your whole name?”
He repeated after her, considered the vowels and the meaning, and then ducked his chin at the ferry they were riding on. “A boat. Like this one.”
“I guess,” she said.
“You are not sure?” He fished in his shorts pocket and pulled out a package of cigarettes, lit one and exhaled at the sky, then held the pack out to her.
She shook her head. She would normally have smoked but thought it wrong to accept a cigarette from a child.
“Do you like hashish?” he asked. “I can get you that or I can get you cannabis, or perhaps you like women?”
Ada said that she didn’t need anything. Yen lifted his dark eyes and said that she was being modest. “Is that right?” he asked. “Modest?”
Ada said that modesty had nothing to do with it. She did not want what he was offering.
He said that everybody wanted something that they couldn’t have. “Take me. I need money so that I can go to school and become a lawyer. Why are you here in Vietnam?”
Ada looked at him. His bare knees were dirty. He wore rubber flip-flops, one of which had been repaired with a red wire. She asked him if he was looking for money.
“No. I am not a beggar. I earn my money. As I said, I repair engines for my father and I procure things for tourists.” He said procure slowly, with a slight affect, as if it were a newly acquired word.
They passed a ferry going in the other direction and on the far shore Ada saw billboards advertising beer and televisions and beyond that there were the tin roofs of shanties and warehouses.
Ada turned to Yen and said that what she wanted he could not get. It wasn’t realistic.
Yen laughed. He thought that realistic was a good word. “I like that. I will use it. How do you say? I am realistic?”
“I meant possible,” Ada said. The ferry was docking and the people around them rose and pushed toward the gates.
Yen followed her along the gangplank, through the terminal, and up the narrow lane. He skipped beside her, dodging passersby. He said, “So you are a tourist.”
“Sure. Call me a tourist.”
“And you are in need of a guide?”
She said she wasn’t. Stopped and looked at the boy. “Listen,” she said, “I want to be alone. Could you leave me alone?”
He bowed slightly. He stepped backward, said, “See you again,” and disappeared into the crowd.
She continued up the lane and crossed over a main road. She walked another half hour, cursing her shoes. They were new and her heels were blistering. The sun was above her; she was sweat- ing into the band of her hat. She was determined not to stop. If she did the people would gather round to watch her and she was tired of being watched. Just the day before she had stopped at a café near the Cham Museum and two teenage boys had sat down with her. They had wanted to be guides, or perhaps help her find something. They had practiced their English, which was minimal.
And so, now, she carried on, regretting her decision to walk instead of hire a taxi. When she finally reached the beach, she set up her mat on the sand halfway between the water and the verandahs of the restaurants. She removed her shirt and shorts, placed her shoes beside her bag, and took out her book and lay down on her stomach. Later, fatigue overcame her and she put her head into the crook of her elbow and slept.
When she woke, she was aware of a game taking place around her, of boys laughing, the spraying of sand, shouts. She sat up. A voice called out and Yen appeared. He moved about on the beach quickly, waving his arms, jabbering. The game halted and the group dispersed. Yen turned to Ada and said, “I am sorry. These boys are rude, as you can see. They have no respect for private space.”
Yen was standing several yards from her. At his feet was a beach umbrella. He pointed to it and said, “For you. Sunstroke can be dangerous.” Without waiting for permission he pushed the stem of the umbrella into the sand and opened it. Then he sat at the edge of the shade and waved a hand at the water. “Beautiful,” he said.
Ada took her water bottle from her bag and drank while Yen happily looked at her legs and stomach and breasts. He lit a cigarette and offered her one. This time she accepted.
“Good for you,” he said.
They smoked and looked out over the water. Yen motioned to her book. “I do not know that book,” he said. “The Great Gatsby. Is that how you say it?”
Ada nodded. She said that it was not an easy book. It looked easy, but it wasn’t.
“Are you a teacher?” he asked.
Ada shook her head. “Oh, no.”
“A chef,” she said, and then added, “Sort of.”
“What is that, sort of?”
“I was in school.”
Yen looked pleased. “Do you swim?” he asked.
“The front crawl?”
“And the butterfly?”
Ada shook her head.
“I have seen the Olympics. All the beautiful sports of the Olympics. Of course there are very few Vietnamese athletes at the Olympics. We have never won a medal. Why is that? Because we are poor. We do not have time to train for figure skating or jumping or throwing the spear. We maybe have a good athlete in shooting or Tae Kwon Do, but, no winners. Still, I love to watch the Olympics. Do you, Miss Ada?”
Ada was aware of Yen’s feet and his small ankles. His shins were bruised and pocked by what looked like old insect bites. He hugged his knees as he talked. His hair was cut short and this made his dark eyes larger, two pools that appeared to alternate between longing and impudence. But he seemed innocent enough. She asked him if he was thirsty or hungry.
He said he wasn’t.
She offered him the apple from her bag. He took it and wiped it against his shorts. Put it in his pocket.
She sat up and pulled her hair back into a ponytail and told Yen she was going for a swim. He said that he would watch her things, that anything of hers would be safe in his hands.
She walked down to the water and waded out up to her waist. She dove in and came up for air and dove under again. She swam out past the breakers, feeling the occasional tug of the undertow. She swam for a while, looking every now and then toward the shore, where she could see the small shape of Yen and the canopy of the umbrella. When she came out of the water, he stood and waited for her to lie down on her mat, and then he resumed his position at the edge of the shade.
He told her that everything was safe.
“Good,” she said. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be.”
“Oh, Miss Ada, you don’t understand. There are thieves everywhere. You can trust no one, especially here on the beach. Why are you here?”
She wrung out her hair. “What do you mean?”
“You and your brother walk around town talking to shopkeepers and taxi drivers. There is something you are looking for.”
She eyed him and asked if he went to school.
“Sometimes. When I am not busy with my customers.” He jabbed his cigarette into the sand. His smile was crooked, and this made him look older than he was.
Ada asked where he had learned his English.
“Why, is it bad?”
“No. It’s very good.”
He said that there were things he could improve on. “I know about contractions,” he said. “It is very difficult to remember to squeeze the words together. Isn’t it?” His tongue tripped slightly. “I am very lucky,” he said. “I have people like you to teach me.”
Ada was lying on her back. She said, “I don’t need a translator. I have one.”
“Oh, yes, I have seen the one you have hired. Dinh. He is very well educated but he doesn’t understand people.” Yen patted his stomach. “Here,” he said. “He doesn’t understand things right here.” He laced his fingers and announced that Dinh was well on his way to becoming a dentist and what did she need, someone to fix her teeth or someone to show her the path?
Ada ignored this and closed her eyes.
Yen said, “I can see that you are sleeping and so I will leave you. I will go up to the verandah behind us and I will watch over you. When you are ready to leave, just whistle.”
Ada opened her eyes. She said that she didn’t need his help. He might as well go away. And besides, she didn’t know how to whistle.
He stood. She saw his dark face above her.
“Good-bye, Miss Ada.”
She closed her eyes again and heard the call of a child down the beach and the movement of the water against the shore. When she sat up, the boy was gone. She swam once more, and when she was ready to leave, she packed her things and put on her shorts and top and walked up to the road behind the restaurants. She looked for a taxi or a cyclo but there was nothing, just the sun and the dirt road and a few houses lining the road. She asked at a restaurant about taxis, but the woman in charge shook her head and shrugged.
Ada looked around for Yen, but he had disappeared. His umbrella was still in the sand, where he had put it. She imagined he would be back and she thought she could wait and he would find her a taxi, but this would be hypocritical. So, she retraced the path that had taken her to the beach. It was easier going home. The sun was lower and the path descended slightly.
On the ferry, an old woman held out a plastic bowl and Ada gave her some change. Then she sat back and watched the harbor. She loved the light at this time of day, just before five, an hour till darkness. It carried her away from herself, from her reason for being here, and she welcomed the lightness of the moment, however brief. The sky was dusty and the ships in the distance were a soft gray.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
David Bergen is the author of four highly acclaimed novels: A Year of Lesser, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award; See the Child; The Case of Lena S., winner of the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction; and, most recently, The Time in Between, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Sitting Opposite My Brother, which was a finalist for the Manitoba Book of the Year Award.
David Bergen lives in Winnipeg.
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