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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 224 pages, $25

“The Refugees” is NOT a mystery but rather a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees, set mostly in the 1970s to 1990s is my guess. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel, “The Sympathizer.”

Nguyen inhabits the characters of old to young, men and women, all touched at some point by either being a refugee from Vietnam after the war or being the descendant of a refugee, with graceful and deft writing. How do they all cope with the trauma of leaving their country for a place so different, culturally and linguistically? How do they cope with memories of the war that tore them from home? How do they cope with the manner in which they escaped Vietnam? And sometimes their return to their country many years later? Actually, a couple of notable characters are not even Vietnamese.

There is very little humor, but there is some. On the other hand, there are no grisly or graphic scenes, although a crime is committed in one story. Rather, Nguyen’s stories are vignettes of daily life, the slow accommodation to aging, the unpeeling of secrets once left far behind or buried. There is even a gentleness to the most horrid of revelations.

My favorite story is of an old couple. He was an oceanographer in Vietnam but must settle for teaching Vietnamese at a local community college. She happily works in the public library, in their Vietnamese collection. His life is fading, a victim of dementia. She is hanging on to what independence she can for them, as their children press her to give up her job, take care of their father, even hire a gardener for the outside chores she cherishes.

As the husband progresses deeper into his senility, he begins to call his wife “Yen.” Her name is Sa. Nguyen’s handling of this is touching. The wife’s journey from jealousy to a passive-aggressive resentment to an acceptance within a few pages of writing is an example of how powerful short stories can be.

Perhaps you are in need right now of another perspective, seeing the United States from the viewpoint of people granted sanctuary here. In fact, after all, we find that they are just people, simply people, just trying to live.

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