Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer in 2015. I know many members are not enamored with prize winning novels, but if anyone has read my previous reviews, you will know that Elizabeth Strout and Anthony Doerr are also Pulitzer prize winners, so I obviously have a taste for them!
The Refugees is not the prize winning novel, but in sticking with my policy of only small novels this year, this book fitted the bill. Again I was not disappointed! It must be working. This is a collection of 8 short stories, based on refugees from Vietnam and now living in California. The stories don’t talk of the hardship that the characters endured to get to the USA, but more about their life and being haunted by their past in Vietnam. I loved all the stories – mostly they showed how stoic and strong the refugees have become – maybe hardened as a result of their past, but maybe also the determination of these people to survive, to prosper, to make a better life and maybe to try not to forget about their past, but to use their pasts to make them stronger.
The refugees, I guess, although they have survived their journey from their homelands, still have their own battles to fight. Ghosts of family members who did not survive the boat trip who have tormented the rest of their lives. The couple who survived being held at gunpoint in their grocery to the shock and amazement of their young son. The entrepreneur who is driven by his ambition and knows no boundaries of when to stop his yearning for possessions and financial success. All of these things, to me, reflect how refugees have learnt to survive in a world where they had nothing, and knew that they could not go home. Some stories are set in Vietnam – the US veteran who returns to Vietnam where his daughter now works, and the final story where a Vietnamese girl returns to Vietnam to meet her half sister – a return to a country that neither now recognised.
This collection of stories did in fact provoke in me a sadness and yet also an admiration, as always, of how these people suffered and endured to survive, and how they continue to do so – the ghosts not leaving them behind, and their determination to not forget and to survive.