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The Barnes & Noble Review
Nelson DeMille is a consummate storyteller whose wit, unstoppable narrative momentum, and edgy, sardonic authorial voice have won him legions of fans over his extensive career.
One of DeMille's most popular characters -- Paul Brenner, the brilliant, abrasive Army investigator first seen in The General's Daughter -- makes a welcome and long overdue second appearance in Up Country, an ambitious, enormously compelling novel of love, war, murder, and memory.
The story begins, appropriately, at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where Brenner -- newly retired and desperately bored -- holds a clandestine meeting with his former commanding officer, Colonel Karl Hellman. Hellman has a mission for Brenner: He wants him to travel, disguised as a tourist, to Vietnam, where Brenner served as an infantryman nearly 30 years before. The mission, which Brenner reluctantly accepts, involves tracking down a former North Vietnamese soldier named Tran Van Vinh. According to a recently discovered letter, Vinh may have witnessed the murder of an American officer during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Aware that there is more to the story than Hellman is telling him, Brenner sets out for his third and final tour of duty in Vietnam. Once there, Brenner -- accompanied by Susan Weber, a guide and translator with more than her share of secrets and surprises -- begins a harrowing two-week journey from Saigon to Hanoi, making numerous stops -- some idyllic, some dangerous, all of them emotionally charged -- along the way. In the end, Brenner locates his witness and learns more than he wants to know about the undisclosed purpose of his mission. But dramatic as they are, the answers he finds are ultimately less important than the scenes he revisits -- and the nightmares he confronts -- during the course of his journey.
Up Country uses the conventions of the thriller as a forum for a beautifully detailed, powerfully reconstructed act of remembrance. As Brenner moves by a circuitous route to the former enemy stronghold of Hanoi, he comes face-to-face with the most violent, surreal moments of his own past. In places like Hue, Quang Tri City, and the A Shau Valley -- scene of a primal, life-or-death encounter he has never revealed to anyone -- Brenner faces and absorbs some traumatic personal memories and achieves a gradual catharsis that is moving, unsentimental, and entirely credible.
In Up Country, DeMille's considerable talents are on full display once again. But this time out, he has raised the stakes considerably, giving us something darker, richer, and more emotionally complex than anything he has written before. Up Country is at once a novel of character, a superb evocation of an exotic, haunted place, and a first-rate story of mystery and suspense. It is also an evenhanded meditation on the cost of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and on the lingering aftereffects of that protracted, deeply divisive war. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, won the International Horror Guild's award for best nonfiction book of 2000.