I’ve never read a novel built on the civilian cost of the Vietnam War. I haven’t read much about the Vietnam War. And Marian Palaia’s THE GIVEN WORLD isn’t about the Vietnam War so much as it is about how a war that seems so focused in a single corner of the world can have a ripple effect on the wider world that never really stops.
THE GIVEN WORLD centers on Riley. Riley is in her most formative, not quite an adult and no longer a child, years when her brother Mick goes missing in the tunnels of Vietnam. Eight years older, Mick was adored by his kid sister and he loved her back enough to leave everything he owned to her by way of writing her name on the boxes. Barely old enough to understand the concept of war, Mick’s disappearance sets Riley on a jagged trajectory that she only just manages to survive.
Palaia’s story is about so much more than just Riley, though. Riley is the center of it and she is the reader’s eyes. The story she tells is heartbreaking. She lives in San Francisco and sees the end of the hippie years there, the men who protested the war and the ones who came home barely alive. She sees them struggle to survive as they live beneath bridges and live waking nightmares. She sees San Francisco in the ’80s as the next generation is brought to its knees by the AIDS epidemic. She befriends the people who can’t find their place in the world; drug addicts, alcoholics, gay men, because she can only find her place in the world with them.
Riley spends decades stumbling through a haze of grief, misunderstanding of herself, and fear of going home because home is where the grief and misunderstanding begin. She drinks and she gets high, she sleeps with men who hurt her because she wants to be loved, she moves to Vietnam to “find” her brother, and she hides from her family because she doesn’t know what to make of herself.
THE GIVEN WORLD is a focused look at a wider story. It is heartbreaking and it is impossible to stop reading, even in its most uncomfortable moments. Because life is uncomfortable… it is the given world.
(I received a copy of THE GIVEN WORLD through NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. Review cross-posted at Goodreads, NetGalley, and on my blog.)