Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first collection of stories couldn’t be more timely or feel more provocative. The Refugees. Just the title alone is likely to rile 52% of the population of the UK. Bloody Refugees! And it’s obviously written by a foreigner! What is the world coming to etc. It’s probably a sympathetic plea for tolerance too. Horrifying! The first thing that strikes you as you start reading, though, is just how calm Nguyen is. How measured. This collection of short stories isn’t provocative at all. Or at least not in the sense that you would possibly expect. What you have here are simple tales of complex lives, complex individuals within complex families existing in complex geographies. And not all of them are to be found in overcrowded boats charting perilous seas.
Take ‘Black-Eyed Woman’, the tale that opens the book. This is the story of a ghost writer visited by the ghost of her dead brother (Nguyen’s stories are awash with these kind of playful echoes), who died many, many years previously (admittedly on a crowded boat charting a perilous sea) and has, apparently, spent the intervening time swimming home. He arrives with wet clothes, leaves a puddle on the floor the first time he disappears. “Ghosts don’t live by our rules,” we’re told. Unfamiliar to us, and to our narrator, it turns out that people return from the dead all of the time. It isn’t the greatest leap in the world to translate this disenfranchisement in a non-supernatural way. Nguyen doesn’t labour the point because he doesn’t have to. He trusts your intelligence, The Refugees’ lack of whistles and bells is flattering. We’re all grown-ups here, the book subtly says.
There’s an echo of a different kind at the very end of the book, in ‘Fatherland’. Our narrator Phuong’s father, we learn, had named his second set of children after his first set – his first set having decamped to America, Phuong’s first wife betrayed by adultery. Years later and Phuong is to meet her equivalent, a young woman who has renamed herself Vivien, touring Vietnam with the greatest largesse, taking Phuong, her two brothers and her dewy-eyed father to restaurants they couldn’t afford themselves and to fairgrounds and sites of cultural importance. Phuong wants to be Vivian, starts to see her father through more cynical eyes, hatches dreams of a life in the USA for herself – at least until we learn that no-one is what they seem, the grass is not always greener, everyone is pretending to be something they are not.
Between these two poles, we get stories of ‘fleeting connection’ (‘The Other Man’), other lives, glimpsed possibilities, families separated by continents and, often, political regimes (‘The Other Man’, ‘War Years’); whether it is bland letters referring obliquely to ‘reconditioning’ or a refusal to donate to a cause ‘back home’ upsetting the precarious success of a neighbourhood business, these are lives populated with ‘the accumulation of everything I could nothing about’. But Nguyen’s stories are as much about the private as the public, as can be seen in one of the stand-out stories from the book, ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’ which recalled Yoko Ogawa’s elegiac The Housekeeper and the Professor to tell of an elderly man living with dementia and his put-upon wife who finds herself repeatedly called by another woman’s name and learns to accept her fate. These are worlds in which words and actions matter. At the climax of the story, she sits down to read to her forgetful, absent-minded husband and vows to ‘read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word.’ There are tensions – best seen in ‘The Americans’ (in which parents visit their daughter and her new boyfriend) and ‘Someone Else Beside You’ (in which a young man and his father pay a visit to the young’s man’s ex-wife and commit an act of violence) – but the resolution of such tension is always surprising and unexpected.
It’s a dense read, certainly, and not a book you would want to hurry through (these are short stories that demand you pause as you go) but The Refugees feels important at this particular moment in history, feels like the kind of book every right-minded person should be reading, the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes more vital than it has ever been.
Any Cop?: One to be filed alongside Homegoing.