In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. The second piece of fiction by a major new voice, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.
Each searing tale in Nguyen's follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning The Sympathizer is a pressure cooker of unease, simmering with unresolved issues of memory and identity for the Vietnamese whose lives were disrupted by the "American War." In "Black-Eyed Woman," a writer is visited by the ghost of her teenage brother, who was murdered trying to save her from Thai pirates while fleeing the Vietcong. "War Years" is about a family of Vietnamese grocers in San Jose, Calif., challenged by another refugee to donate money to rebels still fighting the Communists back home. When an armed intruder invades the family's home, the piercing irony is that their youngest son thinks it's safe to open the door because the man is white. In "The Transplant," Arthur Arellano is the recipient of a new liver from Men Vu, a Vietnamese man killed in a hit-and-run, whose son befriends him, then makes him complicit in his shady business selling fake designer goods. The most disturbing story is "Fatherland," in which a man names his second set of children in Vietnam after his first set, who have fled to America with his first wife. When the American Phuong (now Vivien) visits her sister Phuong in Vietnam, Vivien reveals she is not the doctor her mother boasted she was. It is clear that author Nguyen believes the Vietnamese Phuong, more self-aware and resolute, is better off than her American doppelganger. Nguyen is not here to sympathize "always resent, never relent," as the anti-Communist exiles proclaimed in The Sympathizer but to challenge the experience of white America as the invisible norm.