Viet Thanh Nguyen collates a series of short stories centred around the immigrant experience – telling the stories of those who fled the country during the Vietnam war, or those who grew up in a new country, separated from the land of their parents. In his emotional prose, he develops distinctive voices and a jarring palette of emotions in a variety of stories he tells us.
Short stories are perfect for bite-size reading: you can pick one on the bus to work and finish it before you reach your destination, or plunge into one when you’ve got spare fifteen minutes. But this short story collection is likely to captivate you with its charm for much, much longer: once you enter the world created by Nguyen, you won’t be able to leave his characters easily. Whether he slips into the first-person narration to share the emotions and beliefs of a writer who lost his sibling on a refugee boat, or stays in the background to describe a love story as a narrator who knows it inside out, he shares feelings generously, creating a potent insight into the life of the people he brought to life.
All his characters introduce the immigrants at the different stages of their lives, even if sometimes they aren’t the protagonists. By describing the struggles that they face, the things they learn about themselves and the culture they’ve left behind, he gives a fair outlook on the experience of emigrating to another country – be it for political reasons, the split of a family, or the search of a better life.
Nguyen is also splendid at depicting the characters vividly. The portrait of one character’s mother is totally captivating: she’s a strong woman who can overcome the fear of running past a robber to save the family and is unapologetic about her beliefs, but she can also say sorry when she’s wrong in a heart-breaking turn of action. Another interesting character sketch is a university professor with galloping dementia: when he starts calling his wife by the name of the woman he once knew, his nature slowly unveils to the reader.
The differences in cultures that the author so often describes are also served to us subtly. It’s particularly poignant, because it’s situational, without overloading on stereotypes or shoving the explanations in the reader’s face. For instance, when we follow the story of a young Vietnamese refugee who can only realise his own identity when he moves into the house of American gay couple, we understand the cultural gap through his behaviour and the letters he receives. And when the admired sister that came to visit from America gives her little sibling a set of Victoria Secret lingerie, she leaves her embarrassed, but impossibly curious: it prompts questions about relationships that seem to be working in a whole different way.
Even if you prefer to engage with characters for longer, this short story collection gives you more than just a brief encounter with them. Instead, the author introduces the world of his ordinary heroes to us. Split between two countries and various geographical locations, the struggles of the immigration, adapting to the new environment, and dealing with the changes in your own country create a shared “universe” that connects all the stories by explaining their place in it. That makes The Refugees an insightful read, filled with emotions to the brim, and jam-packed with experiences that feel real.
From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2016 ‘A powerful antidote to all the fearmongering and lies out there . . . A rich exploration of human identity, family ties and love and loss, never has a short story collection been timelier’ ***** Five stars, the Independent In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen…
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