I was given a copy of The Refugees by Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review.
Presently in our country, the word “refugee” doesn’t register as human lives thrown into chaos, but rather as a political issue. A talking point. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees rectifies this.
Many want to think of refugees as people eager to storm into America and claim it for themselves, but Nguyen tells the story of people torn asunder, cast into the unknowable place between where they want to be and where they are. These eight stories explore the emotional and physical toll forced migration can have, in this case the forced migration from Saigon during the Vietnam War. From a ghostwriter reliving the horrors of a Trans-Pacific boat ride, the trauma of which has left her emotionally and literally hiding in the shadows, to a professor with dementia who begins to call his wife of forty years by the name of a former lover. Each of Nguyen’s characters experience the world differently. They remember Vietnam in different ways, desire different things in America, and struggle with different issues within their families. It’s a slim 224 pages, but each story is powerful and unique, making for an overall great read.
There was no stand out story for me really, but the story I go back to over and over again in my mind is “I’d Love You to Want Me.” It falls in the middle of the collection and follows a couple, married for forty years, as the husband is falling ill with dementia. He keeps a list of his mistakes in a little notebook—names forgotten, tasks left undone—to help him remember, but the one mistake he continuously makes is calling his wife by the wrong name. The name of a former lover, to be exact. The story is heartbreaking enough, but pair that with the couples long-awaited return trip to Vietnam where they find the street they once lived on renamed by the Communists. Even Saigon itself has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The wife, long ago tossed from her homeland, is now being rewritten and erased from her husband’s mind. The symbolism is shattering and effective.
Overall, I loved The Refugees. I wish I had a criticism to offer—because, let’s be honest, I love being the cynic—but I honestly don’t. I can’t recommend this book enough. In a time where everything feels political, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen sounds like a book you'd want to avoid, wanting to keep reading time safe from the craziness of the "real world." However, this collection rises above the political smog to offer up eight stories that don't push an agenda, but simply offer a glimpse into other lives. Lives that feel whole and important. Lives that, had things been different, could have been our own. Lives that, as much as some want to avoid it, remind us of our own.
The Refugees was published on February 7, 2017 and is now available for purchase. Buy it here.