Viet Thanh Nguyen’s newest book, The Refugees, is a luminous collection of eight short stories that takes piercingly intimate looks at the lives of refugees, of those caught between worlds, of those caught in a moment. The Pulitzer Prize winning author’s recent books included The Sympathizer, a wry novel about a spy, and Nothing Ever Dies, an academic and philosophical look at historical memory, power, and the Vietnam War. The Refugees is nothing like these two. I should not say nothing. Nguyen’s prose is consistently eloquent and thoughtful, but The Refugees lacks the sarcasm and biting nature of The Sympathizer.
Instead, it takes an extremely intimate look at the lives being profiles, from an elderly woman whose husband suddenly begins calling her another name, or a ghostwriter who spends her days writing about other people’s tragedies dealing with memories of her own trauma.
There are what you might call normal people stories, stories about average folks struggling with the day to day of life. The focal character of each story is a refugee in their own right, but this is merely what binds the collection, rather than what defines their lives. In straightforward narrative prose, Nguyen examines crises large and small created by past and present around issues of family and identity, immigration and exile, loss and hope.
I finished each story knowing there were layers to be unearthed on a second read (where this is a book that could use some reflective intermissions between stories, I chose instead to down it in one fell swoop, so it’s going back on my to-read pile or as Nguyen recently artfully entitled it, my “leaning pile of guilt”). That’s always a winner in my book. And if you do not trust my recommendation, check out the review in the New York Times by Mia Alvar, author of In the Country.