Shelf Awareness: The Refugees

Jen Forbus reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, for Shelf Awareness

Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen shares eight short stories in The Refugees. Each entry in the collection examines a snapshot in the life of an individual straddling two disparate spheres–their homeland and their adopted country. Nguyen’s penetrating gaze will mesmerize readers and open windows to the particular nuances of a population struggling to find its identity.

Nguyen constructs intricate relationships between his characters, whether it is a familiar connection, like the married professor and Mrs. Khanh from “I’d Love You to Want Me,” or something more distant, like Arthur Arellano’s link to his organ donor, Men Vu, in “The Transplant.” Each word and action carries powerful significance; no detail is irrelevant. In “Someone Else Besides You,” the souvenirs Thomas collected with his ex-wife while they were married–which she displays around her new home–send a starkly different message when he visits unannounced than her words, “Don’t come back, Thomas.” Because Thomas’s identity is rooted in his struggling relationship with his father, a triangle of complication enhances the intensity of their story.

Attempts to redefine oneself in a new environment permeate The Refugees, but Nguyen digs especially deep in “Black-Eyed Women.” A woman’s traumatic journey to the United States left her so profoundly questioning who she is that she became a ghostwriter–she doesn’t have to put her name on her work. Another young woman, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, has the same name as her half-sister living in the United States. From birth she never had her a distinct identity and when she meets her sibling for the first time, she loses what little she had to begin with. The rich conflicts in each story arouse readers’ empathy and engage them in the characters’ struggles.

While Nguyen offers philosophical battles both internal and external, he also uses language that is delivered with reverence and grace, conjuring robust imagery. “Michiko was the one who wanted to see Vietnam, hearing from relatives who had toured there that it reminded them of Japan’s bucolic past, before General MacArthur wielded the postwar hand of reconstruction to daub Western makeup on Japanese features.”

The Refugees is simply a beautiful collection of captivating stories. Nguyen’s flair with words and his genius at succinct, compelling plots and dynamic characters creates huge worlds in few pages. This is a book to savor again and again. —Jen Forbus, freelancer

Shelf Talker: Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a collection of short stories about people struggling to redefine themselves in new worlds.

Category: Reviews

 

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