Dreaming the Enemy, a fiction novel by David Metzenthen, explores the experiences of a Vietnam veteran: Johnny Shoebridge in the immediate aftermath of the war. Johnny, who clearly suffers from PTSD from his experiences during the Vietnam war and the loss of two friends, Baz and Lex, struggles to deal with the return to normalcy back in Australia. His experiences at home, although softened by some supportive characters along the way, are also heightened by the negative and confrontational attitude of others who clearly protested against the war. His nature as a ‘conscript’ and these first person experiences ensures the easy emotional connection, leading the readers to sympathise with his emotional and inarticulate distress, in the otherwise potentially controversial issue of the Vietnam war. The conflicting perspectives experienced in war are explored within the novel by the movement between Johnny’s life and that of Khan, a Vietcong soldier, after the war has ended physically but continues within their own lives.
This novel showed its strength in the parallels between the two main characters: Johnny and Khan. It was positive to see a text that didn’t see conflict as a one-sided affair. The parallels between the characters, both of whom were fighters with two companions who were left after the war trying to construct their identities, wondering where to head next and which woman to choose made the questioning of the purpose behind their fights more compelling. This coupled with the historical realism of the experiences, weaponry and languages, even when now politically incorrect, gave a sense of historical weightiness to the text. However, it would have been interesting if some directions taken in the text, such as the backstory of Carly had been explored in more detail, as I felt that this left the text feeling a little wanting at points. The ‘happily ever after’ at the end also seemed to come a little too easily, given the struggles anyone might face after such war-time experiences.
This text could certainly be used as a wide reading task, perhaps for students in the senior year levels, particularly those who have an interest in war or ‘true stories’ style of writing. It could also be used within a Year 10 or 11 classroom, as it had some powerful themes: good and evil, war, choices, future, racism, friendship, identity and sacrifice. As a text based in a historical time period, it could also be useful as a linked text to studying the Vietnam war, looking at both the war experiences as well as the protest movements that accompanied it – both of which are potential units that are studied in Year 11 20th Century History units ‘Peace movements’ and ‘Vietnam war’.
Reviewed by Rachel Towns, St John's Regional College