The Refugees

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Rating: 5 stars

I loved The Sympathizer, but Nguyen may be one of those authors where I love their short stories more than their novels (like Han Kang, I loved The Vegetarian but Human Acts was so much more devastating and beautiful; also, Hemingway).

[…] I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself.  This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
– Ernest Hemingway

What was amazing about The Refugees (and Human Acts) is just how important what was left out was compared to what was included.  You just get snippets of these characters’ lives, but that is enough to leave you with the impression that you both know everything and nothing about them.  That doesn’t make sense, but it’s the best way I can describe the feeling I was left with after finishing each story.

In “Black-Eyed Women,” you see that lasting effects that a harrowing escape had on a family, including the loss of the brother’s life.  Despite years of trying to forget, the narrator is forced to reckon with her past when her brother’s ghost visits.  In “The Americans,” a half Japanese, half black American girl who has never felt at home finds her place teaching English in Vietnam.  Her father, a former U.S. pilot, is less than happy with this discovery as his visit reminds him of his time bombing the land during the war.

One of the most quietly heartbreaking stories is “I’d Love You To Want Me.”  An elderly professor suffering from dementia starts calling his wife by the name of a former love, someone she has never heard him talk about from a prior life he never shared with her.  She tries to handle it the best she can, but it can’t help but tear her apart little by little each time.  It was also tough to see just how her son treats her an extension of her husband, saying her job doesn’t matter and she should devote all of her time to taking care of him.  Not only is any independent identity being erased as she assumes the role of full-time caretaker, but now she has to pretend to be another women entirely.

Each story is beautiful and heartbreaking as it shows how being refugees or being left behind, while it may not define all of the characters’ lives, never stops affecting them.  I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an amazing short story collection about the perils of being human.


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