Highways to a War by Christopher Koch

Hello again! Great to start the year with hopefully resolutions and then follow it up with resounding silence, hey? Then again we’re gearing up for this year’s Tournament of Books so there will be the usual March posting overload…

Anyway I’ve just come back from a wonderful and relaxing trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (I know! My life is hard for real.) and I wanted to continue with my tradition of themed reading/posting. A delightful friend recommended Highways to a War by Christopher Koch as perfectly suited to my holiday and I am so glad she did. It was a fascinating, moving and thought-provoking book and (the king of location-based reading) brought another layer of meaning to my travel experience.

Highways to a War

When legendary Vietnam War photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Cambodia in 1976 he leaves his childhood friend Ray with his audio diaries and his photos. Ray recounts his own childhood memories of Mike and his family and then, in an attempt to find him, flies to Thailand to meet Mike’s friends and colleagues. What eventuates is a story in parts, a series of snapshots of Mike via his audio-diaries and the memories of his friends. Each person adds their own anecdotes and perspective and each interpretation serves to illuminate and simultaneously complicate our growing picture of the enigmatic Mike.
HueBut aside from the portrait of an idealistic, passionate and troubled young man, Highways to a War  presents a picture of Vietnam and Cambodia during their years of turmoil and conflict. It was an intense and sometimes disturbing experience to read about the decadence of war-time Saigon and then see its remains and, perhaps, descendants. Koch describes American soldiers and journalists lounging around palatial hotels, drinking and chatting up girls while ignoring the children and beggars that flood the streets. And here we are, fifty years later, with rich tourists sitting in the same hotel bars in the same beautiful, colonial buildings trying to ignore the children and beggars selling them flowers and postcards. Then we spent hours taking trains through the beautiful mountains of the countryside, the same deadly and booby-trapped places where Mike went out with the South Vietnamese forces. As the book went on more and more questions came up; about the countries and their conflicts, those who are drawn to work in a war zone, the role of the media, and the mysterious Mike himself.

The whole experience of reading it while I was there gave me a greater insight into the complex history of Cambodia and Vietnam and made me notice more of my surroundings. It really was the best kind of book to read while travelling: one that enabled me to get more out of both the novel and my location.

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