BookBrowse Reviews The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen X
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2017, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2018, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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The eight short stories in The Refugees contrast Vietnam with the United States and set the Southeast Asian country's war history against its present condition.

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. His parents were displaced by unrest in Vietnam in both the 1950s and 1970s. In 1975, when the author was four years old, he joined the rest of his family as a refugee, leaving his native country for the United States. The characters in Nguyen's semi-autobiographical short story collection are similarly torn between Vietnam and America. The trauma of history and the uncertainty of their Asian American identity continue to have effects even decades later.

Escape from Vietnam, sometimes by boat, is a distant memory for some of the characters. For Liem, the eighteen-year-old protagonist of "The Other Man," though, it's recent history. Four months earlier he left Saigon and arrived as a refugee in San Francisco in 1975, where he was picked up by an Englishman named Parrish Coyne. Parrish and his boyfriend, Marcus Chan, let him stay with them in the Mission district. Liem has the sense that he is his "family's first explorer," not only moving to a new country but also coming to terms with his sexuality.

In "War Years," it's the summer of 1983 and the thirteen-year-old narrator's mother is engaged in a vendetta against Mrs. Hoa, who's pressuring members of their Little Saigon community in San Jose, California (see 'Beyond the Book') to donate to the fight against Communism back in Vietnam. His mother insists the war is over and she doesn't need to give anything, while his father thinks it's worth handing over hush money to buy some peace. But all of them change their perspective when they learn of everything Mrs. Hoa lost in the war. This is the most autobiographical of the stories in the collection: The narrator is upset by an attempted robbery at his family's Vietnamese grocery store — something similar really happened to Nguyen.

Several stories have characters visiting present-day Vietnam as tourists, or returning for the first time in decades. For instance, in "The Americans," James Carver, who flew a B-52 in the war, goes back to Vietnam to visit his daughter Claire, who works as a teacher in a poor school in the countryside near the demilitarized zone. Meanwhile, her boyfriend uses robots and mongooses to locate and remove land mines. It's as if these two do-gooders are trying to make up for her father's actions years ago.

The first and last tales in the collection are my favorites. The opener, "Black-Eyed Women," is an eerie ghost story. "We had passed our youth in a haunted country," the narrator writes of herself and her dead brother, who sacrificed his life for her 25 years ago when they were escaping Vietnam by boat. Now her mother informs her that her brother has come back: a ghost stuck at age 15 and wearing the wet clothes he died in. The narrator, who ghost-writes survivor memoirs for a living, doesn't believe her mother at first, but then has a startling encounter with the dead that prompts her to start writing ghost stories of her own.

In the final story, "Fatherland," Phuong Ly's father has two sets of children with the same names: one in America with his ex-wife, and the other in Vietnam, where Mr. Ly is a tourist guide. Phuong is excited about her namesake's visit, though her American half-sister now goes by Vivien. Vivien is a successful pediatrician in Chicago and arrives with a precise itinerary of things to see and do. Phuong has always compared herself to her sister, whom her father praises to the skies, and desperately wants to impress her. Over the course of Vivien's visit, though, Phuong learns that maybe Vivien isn't worth emulating after all. It's a powerful example of destroying the doppelganger along with one's unrealistic hopes for the future.

The title of this collection, The Refugees, led me to assume that it would look at different groups of refugees through history or in the present moment, so I felt a bit let down when I realized they all reference Vietnam. Two of the stories are less memorable than the others, and there are also a couple of sudden endings that I struggled to decipher. However, this is still a strong set of tales that take a long view of the Vietnam War and its ongoing effects on those who fought and those who fled.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review is from the The Refugees. It first ran in the March 22, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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