(Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen) + (Year: 2017) + (Goodreads)
(Around the World: Vietnam)
So what exactly went wrong with this book? As harsh as it might sound, to me, it meant nothing.
It’s like when you have that one friend who’s always trying to say something smart, but they end up speaking a lot, and saying nothing. This is how I felt while reading The Refugees.
At the time I decided to request it on NetGalley, because I was excited to see a book from Vietnamese author, I didn’t quite pay attention to the fact that half of the summary of The Refugees is actually a list of the author’s achievements with his other book, The Sympathizer. That would have been the first red light.
And although I know what the author wanted the readers to see in these stories, it’s one thing for the reader to know the purpose of the author, and another to actually experience the author’s ideas. What bothered me the most about The Refugees was the lack of depth to the characters in the stories, and what’s more, the discrepancy between the title and the actual stories in the book.
In order words, the word “refugees” shows this book in a very sensational way, all the while, telling stories which are usually only mildly connected to being a refugee. The difference in this situation is that the narratives of the majority of the characters in the book are those of immigrants. You can’t really take the story of a man with dementia who mistakes his wife’s name with that of his ex-girlfriend/lover, and put it in a book about refugees, because the lover used to be in a country which the characters left. Not only would this be irrational, but it also makes the stories of people who actually fled under a threat for their lives, both in the past, and in the present, seem a lot more trivial and unimportant.
There were maybe only two stories which I would categorize as ones which could properly be called refugee stories: the family which was “visited” by their dead relative, and the boy who arrived to the United States and went through a cultural shock, specifically with the two gay men he was living with. Those are narratives which do prove the clashes between the world of the people who live a normal, stable life, and the ones who are refugees; both from the point of cultural differences, and of ghosts from the past.
And don’t get me wrong, this entire review is not based on semantics. It’s based on the fact that the author wanted to give a perspective of the lives of the Vietnamese refugees, without having much to start with, and therefore, creating a book the point of which remains unclear.
This is specifically so because as much as I, as a reader, wanted to sympathize with the characters, I didn’t feel a part of their adventure. They were regular people who just happened to be out of their place. This can be applied both to the Vietnamese in America, and, say, the Vietnamese girl who went back to Vietnam for a vacation. And the characters didn’t just feel like puppets, because that would imply that they were a part of a story – they were just there, with not much else to give life and spirit to the story.