The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen


I was so happy when I heard recently that Viet Thanh Nguyen won a MacArthur award. I was impressed by his tour de force of a book The Sympathizer and have been looking forward to reading this one. It did not disappoint. Each short story dropped you into a world that you do not know and his skill often left me breathless. With these short stories you have to pay attention to each sentence because vital information is loaded in each one. 

One that was particularly skillfully done was "The Americans." AND HERE I'M GOING TO MAKE A REVELATION SO IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT YET, YOU SHOULD SKIP THIS SECTION. I was so impressed with the unfolding of the key pieces of information that I want to write about it. We meet a 65-year-old American man and his Japanese wife visiting their daughter who lives in Vietnam. He had been a pilot during the war and loved the B-52 he flew "with an intensity still felt as a lingering hunger." 

The father, Carver, is quite grumpy; the author describes his reaction to something his daughter's boyfriend says this way:  "Carver's ears twitched." He silently groaned at having his picture taken with the family and was appalled at his daughter living as the natives did. Well into the story comes this revelation:  He was irritated by the children who stared at the family while they were in a cafe. Claire explained that they were not used to seeing tourists like them and noted she was used to them staring.

"Trying being a Japanese wife at a Michigan air based in 1973."

"Touché," Claire said.

"Try being a black man in Japan," Carver said. "Or Thailand."

Or America as I am so much more painfully aware in these times.

One especially poignant story tells of the woman whose husband fades away into dementia, and begins calling her by another woman's name. He made notes in a little notebook each time he forgot something. As his care consumes more of her life, she wonders who this woman was. The night before she gives up her beloved work in a library, she reminds him of who she is and her name. He makes a note just before falling asleep. She checks the notebook and finds that he thinks she is worsening and wants him to call her by another name. "Must keep a closer eye on her for she may not know who she is anymore." Indeed. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees, Grove Press, 2017, 224 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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