Sunday, September 24, 2017
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Phuong searched for the words to say what she had never told anyone before, how one day she, too, would leave, for Saigon was boring and the country itself not big enough for the desires in her heart. "I want to be like you," Phoung said, gripping her sister's hands in her own.
Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sympathizer, a dense and complex look at how the lives of Vietnamese refugees in the United States look back at the war. He placed characters in what seemed to be every possible political point of view and attempted a plot that aimed at military, political, personal and economic truths. While much of it was compelling, I found it too large, with digressions that felt less than fully imagined however important they might be to a whole truth.
These are short stories, many set in post-war Vietnam, again involving people looking back at the war and the effects it continues to have on their lives. An American tries to find the Vietnamese-American who donated a liver so he could live and gets taken in by a scam-artist, a man attempts to reconcile with his wife while living with his judgmental veteran father, a veteran returns to Vietnam to face his half-Asian daughter and her desire to live and work in the country he tried to destroy.
In many cases the plots and characters are interesting, but the prose fails to grip. Too often they are unique stories being told in ordinary language, and more than once I winced at cliche. (Of course, had I actually winced, that would have been cliche.)
The most compelling and well-written story is the final one, "Fatherland," which tells the story of a daughter who suspects her father does not love her (for good reason) and must face a visit from the long-absent beloved half-sister by his first marriage, whom she was named after. In that story, and the best of these, Nguyen simply does not let his writing get in the way of his material.
Posted by JPLoonam at 6:53 PM