Pulitzer-prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees is a collection of short stories from the past two decades centered around Vietnamese Americans—although it does not necessarily center around people seeking refuge from the country. For example, the story The Other Man is told from the perspective of a young man fleeing the country in the seventies to stay with a gay couple in San Francisco, one of whom he eventually sleeps with—something that his conservative family (who sends him a letter claiming to now side with the Communists and shows disdain about the “sinfulness” of America) would disapprove of. Characters aren’t just refugees from the country or the Communists but of an older way of life.
The process can be reversed as well. An American veteran of the Vietnam war, who flew across the country dropping bombs, returns to the country years later to visit his daughter who now lives there. She, the liberal who holds a grudge against him, seeks refuge from her old life and he, the conservative, can’t understand her. Or the son of a refugee from Vietnam seeks refuge in the form of his ex-wife, even though he doesn’t realize it—it takes the father’s urging for them to reconnect.
Even these descriptions of the above mentioned stories are brief summaries of just portions of the stories. Nguyen weaves intricate plots around each other with so much detail that after each read it felt more like a novel than a short story. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review Nguyen has one the Pulitzer Prize—as well as a slew of other awards—for his 2016 novel, The Sympathizer, so it’s unnecessary to point out of the quality of his writing aside from the storytelling. But so much is packed in each tale his ability to write so eloquently becomes that much more amazing.
Considering that this collection of short stories follows closely on the heels of success of last year’s book, it could be easy to dismiss this one as a “cash grab” by the publisher. However, such a dismissal would ignore the quality of the work in The Refugees, and after reading it I guess I fell for the marketing as I can’t wait to read The Sympathizer. I’m just sorry that I somehow missed it the first time.