Highways to a War

Christopher J. Koch

Minerva 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 http://dannyreviews.com/
When legendary Australian war photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Khmer Rouge Cambodia in 1976, childhood friend Ray inherits his taped diaries. Using these, his own memories, and the recollections and records of others, Ray attempts to reconstruct Langford's life, to understand how he became a myth and why he went back into Cambodia. Eventually this will lead Ray to Thailand, to the Cambodian border and the truth about Langford's fate.

Though different parts of Highways to a War are told from different perspectives, the overall result is a coherent narrative and a portrait of a life. It begins with Langford's childhood on a Tasmanian farm, his "novitiate" in Singapore, where he nearly starves before finding work, and his early experiences in Vietnam, in Saigon and in the Mekong Delta with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army. The story then jumps from Saigon in 1966 to Phnom Penh in 1973. Among other dramatic episodes, Langford is captured by North Vietnamese troops and witnesses the fall of Saigon. The story is tense and gripping, but the centre remains Langford's development: he is a tough man, a survivor, but he is also an idealist and, when he loses his objectivity and becomes involved with the Free Khmer, his fate has a tragic inevitability to it.

Its unity comes from its focus on Langford, but Highways to a War has plenty of other memorable characters. His fellow photographers and correspondents are a fascinatingly idiosyncratic bunch. And Langford's romantic idealisation of women makes them a key part of his life: in Australia, the daughter of a poor fruit-picking family and then the wife of his mentor, in Saigon an older French-Vietnamese woman, and in Phnom Penh the Cambodian woman whose fate becomes tied up with Langford's.

Highways to a War also offers a vivid perspective on the course of the Second Indochina War. This, however, is implicit: Koch makes no attempt to write a history of that war (and readers without any background knowledge may find parts of Highways confusing), or to take sides in the debates over that history, and it is through personal stories and personal tragedies that he sheds light on the broader tragedies.

January 2003

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- more Australian + New Zealand literature
- books about Southeast Asia + Southeast Asian history
- books about Vietnam + Vietnamese history
- more war fiction
%T Highways to a War
%A Koch, Christopher J.
%I Minerva
%D 1996
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1863305246
%P 451pp