Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Sight Magazine: The Refugees

David Adams of Australia’s Sight Magazine writes a review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees.

Sight Magazine
Sight Magazine

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country, making their way to the US (as well as, of course, Australia, Canada and France).

This book – written by one of those refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who last year won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer – tells the fictional stories of some of them and their families, sharing their experiences, dreams and hardships as they adopt new lives in a foreign land.

Written in an understated matter, the stories follow the lives of refugees both in California in the US and in Vietnam spanning the period from the end of the war in 1975 through to today.

There’s a young woman writer whose mother is still haunted by the ghosts of the past, a young man who finds himself confronted with a completely different life when he arrives in San Francisco and finds himself living with two gay men, and the family who have to decide whether to support the ongoing struggle against the Communists despite having relocated to the US.

Then there’s a story about a professor who is losing his memory and confusing his wife with another woman he knew before, in Vietnam, and one of a girl living in what was Saigon and is now Ho Chi Minh City who meets her half-sister coming to visit from the US for the first time.

It’s cleverly-paced writing with Nguyen holding back enough to draw the reader in, deftly creating a sense of suspense as to where the story might go and then shying away from hard resolutions but instead leaving the story endings somewhat open. Overshadowing all is the past: for some time a time of horrors, regret or deep sadness; for others a place they only know through the stories of those around them.

While much of our focus when it comes to refugees is on the journey to the new country, The Refugees offers a look into the lives that follow and the hardships which may not be immediately forseen but which become clearer as life goes on. There’s an exploration here of how the refugee experience continues to shape the lives of those caught up in events beyond their control but also of their descendants in the years to come.

Thought-provoking and poignant (although, be warned, it may be, in places, confronting for some with its stark presentation of the lives of those within its pages), The Refugees is an insightful exploration of what it means to be a refugee in the years beyond the journey that changed their lives forever.


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