Charlie Owns the Night by Ilse Cullen

Charlie Owns the Night (294 pp., $12.99, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by the Irish writer Ilse Cullen. Set in Vietnam in 1968, the books has a multi-arc story of several individuals whose lives are effected by the war. Love comes to odd couples in the midst of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The novel interweaves several main characters. Each gets their own chapter. Chau is the daughter of a decorated North Vietnamese general. The general wants her to deliver a secret message to Viet Cong command in Saigon. She ends up in the tunnel complex at Cu Chi. 

On the way back home via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Chau bonds with her driver, Trang. Her brother Chinh is a VC operative working in Saigon. He works in a bar where he picks up intelligence information from drunk Americans. He ends up in a forbidden relationship with Marie-Louise, a French journalist. 

Tom is an American doctor. He and his wife are involved in the antiwar movement, so you can imagine her reaction when he volunteers to serve in Vietnam because he thinks the experience of combat surgery will be valuable to his career.

Charlie Owns the Night is not a Vietnam War novel even though it is set in Vietnam during the war. This is a welcome change from the other Vietnam War novels I have read, though I would not recommend it as a reader’s first taste of the war. 

Cullen does throw in some tidbits that show she has knowledge of the war. The journalist, for example, takes in the “5 O’Clock Follies,” the derisive nickname war correspondents used for fabrication-laden military press briefings. She gives herself a gold star for specifying that the VC wore black-and-white checked neckerchiefs with a red band at each end. 

Cullen is more interested in generalizing the war. The communists will win because they want it more and the Americans are doomed to fail because most of them don’t care about what they are fighting for. She implies that nearly all American troops were on heroin. The American military she portrays is closer to the way it was in 1972 than 1968.

Of the three main stories, Chau’s is the most compelling. The delivery of the secret message is without suspense, but her long journey home on the Ho Chi Minh Trail gives the book a core that is intriguing.

Chinh’s arc starts slowly and then improves with the introduction of Marie-Louise. The romance seems rushed, but the novel takes off after she visits the American base at Tay Ninh and reports on the attitudes of American troops. 

Tom’s story is the most pedestrian. His wife caves in too easily and their relationship is mostly developed via letters that tend to be redundant.

Cullen can be trite (“Thank you for helping me love again”), but she is sincere in her effort to personalize the North Vietnamese side of the war. She manages to do that through Chau and Chinh and to be fair she adds Tom into the mix.

The novel is definitely pro-VC/NVA, but Cullen does not demonize Americans. Tom represents the benevolent side of America—a nation that poked its nose in business that was not its own.

If you are familiar with the American grunt experience in the Vietnam War through novels and nonfiction books, this novel will give you a different perspective. Apparently, they lived and loved, too.

–Kevin Hardy