Barbie dolls play an unexpectedly catalysing role in Absolution, Alice McDermott’s evocative and masterly ninth novel about the white saviour complex and the social politics of American wives during the Vietnam war. In 1960s Saigon, the docile and conventional Patricia is the newest addition to a cabal of expat wives led by the charismatic Charlene, a Regina George in Betty Draper’s clothing. Charlene is a chain-smoking dynamo of caustic put-downs, vulpine glamour and a barely concealed tranquilliser habit. Impressionable Patricia goes along with her charitable fundraising scheme to sell Barbie doll-sized áo dài, the Vietnamese national garment rendered in perfect miniaturised detail by a talented local house girl, Ly.

Charlene’s “Saigon Barbie” project preoccupies much of the novel’s opening chapters, demonstrating the performative altruism and insular frivolity of the expat socialite lifestyle, in which power and image is a totalising currency, and the labour and subservience of local women is taken for granted. As Patricia puts it, “the cocoon in which American dependents dwelled was still polished to a high shine by our sense of ourselves and our great, good nation”. Vietnamese house girls are described as “charming”, “benign”, “moving soundlessly” from room to room – while outside, on the streets, Patricia recoils from begging children whose burns she doesn’t realise are caused by napalm, and is duly chastised by her husband to “never give them money”. This dehumanising allows Patricia and her set to turn a blind eye to the genocidal violations going on close by.

Hailed by Ann Patchett as a “moral masterpiece”, Absolution is an epistolary novel that wears its formal and thematic ambitions deceptively lightly through McDermott’s vivid harnessing of period detail and pithy observations – “Jackie in her black veil”, “a garden-party smile”. Framed as a correspondence between an older Patricia and Charlene’s daughter, Rainey, who reaches out to her 60 years after they’ve left Vietnam, it is also a confessional, a search for the titular absolution in Patricia’s re-evaluation of the past.

The lack of agency of American wives, and the limitations and myopia of their white saviour perspective, is brought to the fore with hindsight. Patricia also reassesses her role as a “helpmeet” to her husband, a vocation which involves being a presentable wife as well as a mother. She tragically miscarries many times over, and her thwarted longing for motherhood and the ambient social pressure for childbearing lends the narrative an incisive pathos. Patricia is immediately fond of Rainey when she first meets her as a little girl holding “a Barbie doll in the crook of her arm, like a sceptre” – feeling more of a kinship and affinity to the child than her calculating, manipulative mother.

As a slippery, forceful quasi-altruist, Charlene is Absolutions most fascinating character, both morally obsessed and morally opaque, and she remains a mystery and cipher right until the end. Patricia sees her as her “director”, “a rival”, a bully, who “knew an easy mark, a girl of lesser means who would be reflexively – genetically – disposed to do for her whatever she asked”. Yet she is desperate to impress her, and the two women bond when Charlene comforts Patricia after a miscarriage. Haunting the narrative is Patricia’s earlier formative friendship with Stella, who felt compelled by the guilt of her slave-owning roots to become a civil rights activist.

The final third of the novel shifts to Rainey’s perspective, to considerably less immersive effect. As a grown woman, Rainey reconsiders the ambivalent love she feels toward her now deceased, domineering mother: a love “that had been wholly physical: the familiar quick fingers, the green eyes, the rough texture of her hair, the curve of muscle in her calf, and, yes, the high instep of her small feet – those were the images that came to mind when I argued that I loved her”.

Absolution is a masterclass in point of view and thorny characterisation. McDermott captures the convolutions of social dynamics and the mutability of memory with brilliant aplomb and attention to detail. It is a successful and absorbing portrayal of the complicated interior lives of white American women during the Vietnam war, and the reverberation of their time abroad for many years after. It’s a shame that the novel doesn’t afford even a hint or a gesture toward a rich and complex interior life for its Vietnamese characters – most notably Ly, given the western moniker “Lily” by her American employers. Ly’s handiwork is pivotal to the Barbie-centric plot device that kicks off Patricia and Charlene’s friendship, and she also plays an important part in the women’s visit to a leper colony, yet is never afforded her own interiority or space for nuance. She remains merely a blind spot, a handmaiden, a footnote in service to the bigger story.

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