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The Devil's Snare: A Memoir of Saigon
by Janice Tait
Toronto: McGilligan Books, 2005, ISBN 1-894692-12-8, 156 pages, $22.95 paper.

Decades ago, writing a memoir was a pastime often consigned to the rich and famous such as aging screen actors and retired politicians. Even then, they often enlisted a ghostwriter to help distill a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences into a manuscript worthy of publication. In more recent times, many of the dynamics have changed. Nowadays, the genre attracts a sizable readership. Furthermore, celebrity is no longer an issue, so the number of memoirists cutting their literary teeth continues to grow. In fact, a wide range of writers, form refugees to housewives to adventurers, have taken up their pens as a means of savouring their past.

Toronto psychotherapist Janice Tait is such a writer. She has long regarded the eighteen months she spent in Vietnam during the late 1960s as a watershed period in her life. Thirty years later, she decided to write The Devil's Snare as a retrospective of her stay in that culture. Not only does the memoir portray a country under siege, it also examines Tait's troubled psyche.

At the outset, Tait and her husband Richard are offered a Canadian diplomatic posting in Saigon. They hastily agree, so Tait must abandon her teaching career, and place her three children in boarding school. Prior to the move, Tait believes that the posting will provide her with adventure as well as time alone with Richard in order to heal their troubled marriage. Nevertheless, her assumptions about Vietnam and her role there prove to be false; once they arrive, the reality of the encroaching war quickly sinks in. To make matters worse, the emotional distance between Richard and her increases.

Throughout their stay in Saigon, Tait confronts two misconceptions, both of which she calls "the devil's snare." On one level, it refers to the growing failure of the United States to terminate the war. At the same time, Tait must finally admit her husband's indifference--her own personal "devil's snare."

In lucid, unadorned prose, Tait vividly recalls her initial impressions of Vietnam as well as her own personal transformation. As the conflicts continue to mount, so does the reader's interest.

One of the book's strengths is Tait's depiction of the two separate worlds in which she finds herself. Within the diplomatic compound, she remains impervious to the political turmoil surrounding her, yet beyond its walls, the presence of the war transfixes itself in her mind. In the chapter entitled "Life at Villa One," Tait describes an incident in which these two spheres collide: "A 20-foot high chain link fence separated our compound from the tent city next door, where the reputed 40,000 refugees lived. Most afternoons, a flock of small Vietnamese children climbed this fence to watch us play. When they became bored with our performance, they'd start throwing stones . . ."

As a chronicle of the times, the book presents Tait's struggles to assert her independence as a woman in pursuit of a teaching career. "Being a diplomatic appendage was no longer enough for me. Though options were unclear, my new feminist perspective fuelled my desire to make a difference." (16)

Tait's book also portrays the sobering effects of the war on the Vietnamese people, and descriptions of bygone days help the reader to gain more understanding. In one section, Tait comments about a hospital that she toured. "Most of the people treated at this hospital were Vietnamese peasants who had lost an arm or leg and had come to be fitted for a prosthetic device. Many were children. The doctor told us that some of theses patients were casualties of the fighting, but many others had lost limbs while attempting to cook with aviator fuel." (56) Adding to her observations is a series of colour photographs that aptly capture the stark reality of life in Vietnam during the late 1960s.

Tait is to be commended for her emotional honesty in committing her words to print. Readers with a historical bent as well as baby boomers will find this book of particular interest.

Bev Greenberg is an adult literacy instructor in Winnipeg.

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