“Who is ‘The Countess’?” is the novel’s smouldering conundrum and it is never fully answered until the surprising and delightful last pages, and perhaps not even then. The fact that she is an enigma until almost the end is what propels the action – though, when I say ‘action’, there are periods of seeming inertia where any real activity seems to be going on out of frame and where the protagonist, Bradley, and the Countess appear to be marionettes in some kind of elaborate puppet show. Does the Countess know who pulls the strings and does she know what is contained in the packages Bradley brings her?
The novel is set in the period leading up to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Bradley is a junior officer in the American navy who says of himself: “I’ve never been anyone remarkable. Not at school; not in college; not in the military, and certainly not in my subsequent career.” He has a dry wit and a fundamental decency which prevent him from being a cipher and indeed he grows during the course of this cleverly plotted book. It is his beautifully understated relationship with the sphinx-like Countess which is the stimulus for his personal development.
Bradley has tried to keep a low profile by trying to access quality typewriter ribbons for admin and PAO on board the vessel in which he is serving. He is plucked out of this near-farcical obscurity to deliver radio scripts to the Countess who will pass them on to the American radio station. Their content is propaganda. Bradley’s commission comes from British MI17 and is hush-hush because officially the UK aren’t supposed to be involved directly in the Vietnamese conflict. This involves a degree of danger and we seem to be firmly within the espionage genre.
And yet the focus remains on the teasingly tentative relationship between Bradley and the Countess. She has many faces. Is she victim or femme fatale, temptress and double agent or unwilling pawn? Her sunglasses are emblematic of her secret character and her changes of costume of her shape-shifting fascination. She is cultured and sophisticated and holds dual Vietnamese-French citizenship though her father was British.
There is a convincing sense of place throughout the novel, whether on board ship, in a rather faded Pall Mall Club, in a helicopter or in a Saigon Restaurant. The scenes in Saigon are the most compelling. Reidy takes us to a city pretending to do business as normal whilst one of the most destructive wars in history, one which ripped a page out of the youth of a generation of Americans, rages not far offstage. I feel that I know what it would be like to be there. I feel I would like to taste báhn cam and chả giò in the shade while pedestrians, bicycles and mopeds jostle in the street.
It was clever of Reidy to frame the story with an interview with Osgood, a ministry mandarin, forty years after the events of the novel. Bradley’s dual Anglo-American commission leads to some mischievous comedy from Reidy, ranging from the frustrations of some of Bradley’s senior officers at having to submit to British requirements, to the nuanced conversations between the bland but devious urbanity of Osgood and Bradley who, with very good reason, is telling less than he knows. Cultural differences between English and American world views are keenly and affectionately observed.
There are two corking surprises in The Countess Comes Home which I am not going to tell you about. Subject yourself to Michael Reidy’s controlled and lucid prose and find out for yourself. This original and intriguing work will not disappoint.