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on 7 March 2003
In A River in May, young Special Forces Lieutenant Francis Lopez, adopted from Mexico by a tragedy-stalked aristocratic family and schooled in France, flees his personal ghosts by going to Viet Nam. His life with a handful of US soldiers in a mountain basecamp, commanded by a captain who is unnaturally obsessed with the destruction of a rag-tag nearby village, supported by South Vietnamese troops who disappear when there are rumors of attack, is surrealistically harrowing. His ultimate attempt at redemption is even more so.
This is not beach reading, by any means. It's affecting stuff, graphic, by turns blackly humorous and horrifically sad. But this makes it well worth the read--and the ending had me turning pages late at night.
Author Edward Wilson, a Viet Nam veteran who served with the Special Forces, paints a setting so real you can feel the rats nibbling at your fingernails. His characters are living, breathing, bleeding, three-dimensional human beings, quirks, egos and all. And his war is the real thing--a cesspool of chaos and psychopathology, a logistical Catch-22 where idealism is near kin to cynicism, corruption is rewarded, betrayal is an everyday inconvenience, and the cruel play sadistic games unhampered and uncondemned. It is a world where the lucky survive, and come home to wonder what luck really is.
We live in a nervous, armed-to-the-teeth world where it is vital, I believe, to demystify war, to rethink heroism and question the wisdom of sending children to die in the service of political whimsy. A River in May does all this, with fine writing and a solid sense of story. It deserves to be on the shelf next to Tim O'Brien's books, and it should be required reading for anyone who votes.
Susan O'Neill...
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on 10 November 2010
Anyone who has read a few of the many novels/ fictionalised memoirs that have come out of the Vietnam war will recognise (a little tiredly perhaps) the use of the well-worn tropes that the story includes -- the cut-off ear dangling from a neck chain as a trophy; the evil, blood-thirsty commanding officer; the resilient integrity of the badly wounded Vietnamese cadre; the cowardly helicopter pilots and so on. Like many other Vietnam war novels, there seems to be a need to include as many instances as possible of what have consequently become familiar images -- perhaps as a sort of catharsis for the writer. The unfortunate consequence of this is that it occasionally trips the story up into too many episodes of (familiar) horror which almost interrupt the narrative flow .

But it would be wrong to dismiss this powerful piece of writing for the inclusion of a few stylistic cliches and familiar instances of plot-colour. How much A River in May is a piece of cathartic writing based on experiences from the author's own life only he can say. What is apparent to the reader is how this story -- overall -- is really unlike any other Vietnam war book. Or unlike almost any other war novel come to that.

The denouement really is shocking and it really does continue to resonate after the book is closed.

Entirely different from any of the normal pantheon -- Herr's Dispatches; Wright's Meditations In Green; Mason's Chickenhawk; any of Tim O'Brien's books -- this one, as other reviewers have quite rightly pointed out, can stand its ground against any of them. It is reminded me a lot of Wolff's 'In Pharoah's Army'. It is as well written and as perceptive; as fluid (bar one or two episodic judders) and as powerful a piece of writing.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 May 2014
A River in May is a Vietnam War novel which is not something I’d normally read yet Edward Wilson blew me away with the powerful prose in this book. There’s no escaping that this book handles bleak and harrowing issues but the writing was stunning and this book presents a plot which is not to be ignored.

Lieutenant Lopez is a complex, conflicted character who battles with the horrific realities of war along with his own personal demons too. You can’t read this book expecting heroes and characters you’re going to love but instead, refreshingly real characters who I connected with, regardless of my opinion on them. The characters were written perfectly.

Edward Wilson drew on his own experiences from the Vietnam War when writing A River in May, making this novel much more honest yet equally distressing. The pacing was spot on and the plot, laced with black humour, is shocking yet equally moving. You battle along with Lopez and his guilt, suffering and search for answers. A River in May is a difficult novel to read but very rewarding and so worth it.

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on 26 October 2013
A superb novel - beautifully written, sophisticated in its handling of the narrator's dilemma, moving, painful, occasionally funny (in a mordant way). My first encounter with Wilson, others of his already bought on the strength of it. Cannot recall who recommended his writing to me - possible Amazon's megacomputer, but anyway, thanks to whoever that was.
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on 27 October 2013
This was the first of Edward Wilson's novels that I came across. I found it extremely well-written and engrossing, even if the story and its setting were grim. His characters are complex and interesting and nothing is predictable. I ordered further novels on the strength of this one.
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on 9 September 2014
this book ought to be compulsory reading for all those interested in the true facts of the Vietnam war in all its horror.
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on 23 June 2015
One of the best books about war I have read . There were powerful points in this novel that reminded me of John Paul Sartres roads to freedom . Although set in Vietnam the characters and events could be transferred to any conflict anywhere in the world. All in all a novel that is hard to put down ,one that draws you in and won't let you go and keeps you thinking long after you've finished it . A great and compassionate book read it !!!!
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on 26 May 2002
A River in May
By Edward Wilson
'Stylistically sophisticated' first novel by Edward Wilson, an American Special Forces officer during the Vietnam War, is not for the faint hearted. Although the title suggests some sunny, sentimental romanticism, one take of the darkly powerful and striking cover dispel any possibility of nostalgia or banality.
This shockingly truthful and emotionally complex supercharged heavyweight - information stacked - reveals to be incredibly effective and masterly at evoking the sinister and macabre obscene destruction surrounding Vietnams brutality, that was of holocaustic proportion. In factual, punchy, lean and mean lines the concentrated essence of this historical (and human) malfunction, wreaking unbelievably gruesome and despairing events, leaves the main character, Lopez, as well as its reader with a sickening, gut wrenching stench in the revelation of its horror and futility.
This book parallels the war that rages within Lopez, a twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant, an American of Mexican origin, to the transference to the larger and far reaching atrocities of pandemic proportion of Vietnams degradation and butchery. Lopez, an independent spirit from childhood, juggles precariously with feelings of loss, guilt, displacement and lack of belonging. This inability to reconcile between good and evil, love and rejection, the adherence to rules and what is right, as well as his desire to please, wrangle, and are in conflict with harboured individualistic and anarchical tendencies. This foot in both camps has Lopez emotionally, morally and intellectually dancing over hot coals as to the correct course of action. This book is not about hero's - there are no hero's, because any quest soon reveals itself as pointless, meaningless and base.
'A rational side of Lopez knew that the whole business was puerile: guns and other toys of war were emblems of infantile regression.' 'But, it was still queerly fascinating.'
These contradictions in Lopez foster his final, fatal actions, as the culmination of his search for answers/escape/release and the need to make amends on some human level that transcends all known moral, cultural and ethical code. Killing, death, corpses, mutilation - enough blood and guts to turn the pages as bloodstained as a slaughterhouse floor. As concise and surgically explicit in its execution as a medical chronicle, Wilson's writing style is honest. Conceals nothing: Spares you nothing. Although numbingly brutal, it is smattered with fragments of surprising beauty and integrity. There is nothing trivial about this work.
Right through the book, even through all the hopelessness, sadness, injustice and destruction, Lopez's ability to recognize and appreciate beauty and goodness where present, never wanes. In the paddy fields, the mountainous scenery, in the people whose lives touch his. Beautiful and sensory descriptions, as in,
'After a time the air turned damp and chill, the stars were extinguished, a bank of mist rolled down the river, licked the base of the mountain, liked it, and ascended the slopes.'
Amongst the black, sparkling pinpricks of intellect and the poetic glimmer as respite. Urgent, bleak eroticism and psychosexual depictions manifest Lopez's disenchantment and frustration from emotional unfulfilment and quelled passion. Dreams are bizarre distortions and nightmarish magnifications. Punctuated by fabulous and incongruously humorous lines, most part dripping liquidly the blackest comedy and irony, observing oddity, extraordinary incidents and the insights and reasoning's of Wilson's rich cavalcade of characters, with lines such as,

'Sure, Redhorn was evil, but his was an evil with integrity.'
This work occasionally tickles the funny bone, but it doesn't attempt to tickle ears. Thought provoking and catalyst in approach, its strength and power ever present in an almost taunting, unforgiving and relentless pace, which marches on irrevocably towards its abhorrently hellacious and dramatic conclusion in Lopez's desperate attempt to mend the irremediable.
Edward Wilson's 'A River in May' enlightens with a baptism of fire into the frightening, yet compelling spheres, both inside the character of Lopez's psyche, and the wider ramifications of the psychological world in relation to men, war, culture and its historical and ethical deliberation. As meaty and bloody as a flash-panned beefsteak, its rawness sometimes unpalatable, yet ever compulsive. This is no grunting meatheads take on glamorising warmongery. Whether its polemic end is paradox, primitivism, utilitarian or knee-jerk reaction, its profoundly unsettling and disturbing genre will remain to haunt the reader. This book means something. Read it.

Review by Brigitte Hoskins
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on 29 June 2007
This is a terrific novel, and i'm not surprised that it was short listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. In Leiutenant Lopez, Edward Wilson has created a character who has to deal with the moral, social and sheer horror of that war. The pace is very good and you can't stop turning the page; this is my first Vietnam war novel and i highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something completely different.

The novel is punctuated with great lines and really humourous, sharp and engaging dialogue- this comes from the fact That Edward wilson served as an officer in that war. A line I liked from the novel 'You should use the past as a book from which to learn, not as a knife to cut yourself.'

I look forward to his next novel.
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on 13 October 2014
I am excited to have discovered this wonderful writer. this book gives a sad, perceptive and critical perspective on one of the many disastrous wars initiated by the USA on different cultures and innocent people. His world-weary and humane account makes for a fine literary experience based on the truth of his own experience. but this is far removed from the gung-ho accounts of war lesser writers espouse.This book moves while it raises serious and continuing issues of US invasions and our supine complicity in them. the author has made his home here in england and I am proud to welcome this brave, talented and intelligent dissident. I am now in the process of reading everything he has written. what a joy to find such a literary talent. this book should be on every modern history student's compulsory reading list. and for those like me who lived through the vietnam war with a feeling of helpless frustration, it gives - at long last - a voice.
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