Forgiveness, Grace and Sacrifice in Novel “Absolution”

by | May 2024

Absolution by Alice McDermott

Decades ago, I met Alice McDermott after a talk that she gave about being an Irish American writer. She was delightful and pragmatic. That Night had been published to great acclaim. The National Book Award-winning Charming Billy was yet to come.

Reading Absolution, McDermott’s latest work, I feel that the arc of her wonderful early novels leads to this very book. In it, two women recall their time in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in 1963.

We meet our two protagonists in the present day. Tricia Kelly is widowed and living in a senior community. Recently-retired Rainey was 7 or 8 years old when she met Tricia at a garden party. Sixty years after the war, they share their memories in letters, focusing on Rainey’s mother, Charlene.

The Vietnam War is not quite yet the war in 1963—it is an intervention. Not even a year married, Tricia has traveled to Saigon with her husband. Peter is an engineer and lawyer on loan to the government. They are also Roman Catholic, like the presidents of both countries. Tricia meets Charlene, a mother of three, whose husband, Kent, seems to be with an oil company or intelligence, or both, at the party.

Charlene aims to do good while in Vietnam. She enlists Tricia in her do-gooding. This involves Barbie dolls and Macy’s, hospitals, a leper colony and breaking rules when necessary. This novel is a marvel.

Maureen Millea Smith is a retired librarian and a Minnesota Book Award-winning novelist.


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