The Refugees was written by Vietnamese born American novelist and teacher Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was first published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic.
Today’s book review is brought to you by this glittery filtered Snapchat image reminiscent of a decent Mayday bank holiday in London. One of such summery unconventionality that many Londoners flooded in their masses to parks, gardens and novel beaches. Myself no exception. And so, armed with a four can pack of San Miguel, I began this eagerly anticipated read while my boyfriend spent his time trying to unlock new levels on his car game.
The Refugees is an amalgamation or rather collection of stories where each narrative in some way relates to post-War Vietnam or to the refugees of the conflict. It’s not an anthology though as each story adheres to the same central theme and seems synonymous of a POV or Point-of-View novel.
The way the author perfectly captures the emotion, the very essence of a particular character or scene through cleverly worded descriptions is a real testament to the difference in the calibre of writing between dabblers like me and those in the business.
Nguyen certainly has a knack for using prose in non exhaustive way that is just enough to fully encapsulate the aesthetic of the scene or dynamic without going into vast amounts of detail, rather the detail unfolds progressively which really held my attention throughout.
A shift in narration occurs on occasion, with some chapters being spoken in the third person while others firsthand accounts. It was these first person chapters that I mostly enjoyed reading as the most insightful portrayals into the disorientation, fear, ignorance and uncertainty of fleeing one’s country and seeking refuge in another. I wish this perspective was developed more as I feel like there was a lot more that could’ve been expanded on in terms of their transitioning into an alien, heavily secularised culture.
However, the somewhat episodic nature of the book meant that the stories were cut short so that while there was in some cases (not all) a sense of closure, there was no real finality, like a book ending on a cliffhanger. Each episode was, in effect, an anecdote of a particular period in the character’s life that sometimes shed light on the war or the pursuing of refuge.
The fact that most of these stories focused on the lives of Vietnamese men and women who had already integrated into the culture was a bit disappointing, as the actual story behind their seeking refuge and the transition period into their eventual assimilation into their new culture was only given the occasional expository mention. Episodes of former lovers, break-ups and fake goods, while there were interesting, didn’t do enough to address the vulnerabilities and apprehensions of being a refugee and the stigmatization of refugees on the part of Western societies.
To its credit, this book gives ethnic minorities a more prominent voice, ranging from primarily Asian to Latin American to African American. I found this diversity in ethnic representation to be relevant and cognizant of modern Western culture.
Nguyen possesses a captivating writing style, the likes of which make this book engaging throughout, but it ultimately fails to develop on its principal concept beyond passing exposition and sporadic cultural references.
I rate The Refugees…
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