When walking the coastal path in Devon a few weekends ago I read The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler. It was a book recommended to me by Philippa Thomas who kindly invited me to a literary evening at the British Library back in March, where I heard a reading by the author. Philippa thought I would enjoy this book given my interest in both Vietnam (see my blog on Reading Vietnam) and in San Francisco (see my blogs on Armistead Maupin and The Japanese Lover), the two locations where The Outside Lands is set. She was quite right.
It’s a tale of brother and sister Kip and Jeannie in 1960s San Francisco, whose early lives are hit by tragedy (spoiler alert) when their mother dies suddenly. Jeannie drifts into adulthood by working in a burger joint, meeting a young doctor, getting pregnant and marrying him. But life with a young baby is not enough and she becomes entangled with a lover and the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile her brother Kip has enlisted to escape his father and is serving in Vietnam. The descriptions of war are horrifying and also perfectly conjure up the futility of it. The atmosphere it creates of being stuck in a jungle camp surrounded by Viet Cong guerrillas, forced to go on sorties that would bring almost certain death, is echoed in the fantastic new Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War, which I’ve also been watching. Kip snaps, and as a consequence ends up in a military prison, and it is a twist of fate that this is what saves him and the soldier he attacks.
The book explores the morality of war, family and loyalties, as Jeannie tries to help her brother in Vietnam, whilst also befriending the victim of his actions. This complexity of relationships was never going to end well and it doesn’t. There are no happy endings for Jeannie, Kip, Jeannie’s lover, or the man whose life is forever changed by Kip.
This is a fantastic book. I take my hat off to the author’s imagination and skill in being able to write such a powerful and convincing take on the Vietnam war.