Book review: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees tells eight tales of Vietnamese migrants

In an age of closing borders, these eight tales of Vietnamese migrants offer a valuable insight into the pain of leaving a homeland for strange shores.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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There is a section in Ways of Escape where Graham Greene casts back to the early 1950s and discusses his love affair with Indochina in general and Vietnam in particular. He singles out Saigon's opium fumeries, gambling houses and elegant girls, and the overall "feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to the visitor with a return ticket".

That measure of danger would soon intensify, convulsing the country and displacing many of its people. In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen's first collection of short stories and follow-up to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel The Sympathizer, the focus is not on visitors to Vietnam with return tickets but Vietnamese migrants who have fled war on a one-way trip to a better future in the United States.

In these times of looking inward and shutting out, of breaking down bridges and building walls, Nguyen’s eight stark and incisive tales provide valuable, necessary insight into the pain and upheaval of exchanging a homeland for an adopted other.

Nguyen – who was born in Vietnam and raised in the US – opens the proceedings with one his strongest stories. Black-Eyed Women introduces us to a ghostwriter who looks back on her youth in Vietnam, "a haunted country", and is then visited by the ghost of her brother, who died decades ago on the fishing boat which carried her to her current safe haven.

What could have been an overcooked, over-spooked melodrama is instead a perfectly calibrated tale, both tender and tough, one that deals with survivor’s guilt and attempts to soldier on.

Two California-set stories reveal there is more to a person than first envisaged. In War Years we meet Mrs Hoa who persistently does the rounds of a Vietnamese community collecting funds – "for the fight against the Communists, my dear". One harried family holds out, viewing her as an "extortionist" – that is until they hear her own tale of personal loss.

Against this, The Transplant is more a comic romp which follows the exploits of a winsome double-act: Hispanic-American Arthur wrestles with a troublesome marriage and a new liver, while Vietnamese Louis, seller of counterfeit goods ("better than genuine"), shows that his wares are as suspect as his identity.

One story, The Americans, turns the tables and has at its centre an American visiting Vietnam. James Carver, a war veteran, has been dragged there by his wife and carries with him prejudices: Vietnam is "a land of bad omens and misfortune so severe he wanted nothing more to do with it than fly over it".

Down on the ground, he finds himself ill at ease from sights, sounds and smells. Even harder to cope with, though, is his daughter’s love of the country and her claim to have “a Vietnamese soul”.

Nguyen's characters aren't really refugees in flight or in limbo. No one is truly stateless, rudderless or hopeless. No one resembles Cormac McCarthy's refugees in The Road: "Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland." Hardship is presented in getting from danger-zone to sanctuary, but in the main, Nguyen tracks aspiration not desperation, and culture shock rather than homesickness.

Most of his immigrants have acclimatised and integrated and have vowed never to return to Vietnam. “If I go back,” one man tells his son, “they will call me a war criminal. They will put me in reeducation, and you will never hear from me again.”

Many of the charted struggles are of the standard, everyman-anyplace variety: lost love, bad health, wrong choices. There is plot-worthy tension between estranged half-sisters in Nguyen's last story – but mercifully Fatherland is a million miles away from McCarthy's "feverland".

Only one story, I'd Love You to Want Me, fails to ignite. That said, it contains intermittent sparks in the form of expertly conveyed emotion – from the overwhelming sadness and rage that engulfs a married couple who return to Saigon and witness the condition of their old house repossessed by Communist cadres, to the despair of the wife as her husband succumbs to dementia.

“Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more,” one character declares. But they aren’t, or at least not in Nguyen’s capable hands. His are rich, transformative tales whose truths run deep and whose characters’ plights move us.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance reviewer based in Edinburgh.