Book Review | The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In The Refugees, Nguyen’s short stories encompass a broad scope of human experience from those who have sought refuge in America. And yet from this common core, the stories are illuminating, unique, empathetic and universal – there is no one way to be a Vietnamese refugee, and no one way in which this experience will shape your identity.

While this is a book about Vietnamese refugees, the themes are wide-ranging: identity and belonging, family dynamics, romantic relationships, trauma and healing, remembering and forgetting. Some of the strongest stories include I’d Love You To Want Me, where a woman who works as a local librarian begins to lose her husband to Alzheimer’s, and he begins to confuse her with a previous lover. In The Transplant, a hospital privacy glitch allows Arthur to track down the son of the man whose organ donation saved his life, and begins storing the son’s vast imports of fake designer goods in his garage to return the favour. And in War Years, a young narrator recounts the summer of 1983, where his mother, the owner of a Vietnamese grocery store, is publicly shamed and harassed for not donating a large sum of money to fight against the communists back ‘home’.

This isn’t a book about the Vietnam war, and we are largely spared graphic and traumatic retellings of wartime experiences. But the legacy of the war is the undercurrent that hums through each story, where the characters are always aware that were it not for the conflict, they would not have been torn from their homeland and forced to rebuild their lives in America. America is portrayed as multifaceted and complex, simultaneously hostile and land of opportunity.

‘Their relatives’ experiences and their own had taught my parents to believe that no country was immune to disaster, and so they secreted another percentage of the profits at home, just in case some horrendous calamity wiped out the American banking system. My mother wrapped blocks of hundred-dollar bills in plastic and taped them underneath the lid of the toilet tank, buried dog-tag-sized ounces of gold in the rice, and stashed her jade bracelets…in a fireproof safe, hidden in the crawl space underneath the house.’

I enjoyed the scope of the stories and their cleverly drawn arcs. I don’t read a lot of short stories, and I am frequently impressed with the ability to pack a memorable journey into a few thousand words. I did, however, feel I was being held at arm’s length as a reader. There’s a delicate balance between being understated and heavy-handed, and I think Nguyen’s collection tips towards the former, which meant that, for me, there was some intimacy lacking in the otherwise deeply personal and compelling stories. And while the collection works well as a whole, I feel that slightly more curation could have gone into the process of putting these stories together for a cohesive reading experience.

In his afterword essay, Nguyen writes: ‘Like the homeless, refugees are living embodiments of a disturbing possibility: that human privileges are quite fragile, that one’s home, family, and nation are one catastrophe away from being destroyed.’ By bearing witness to these stories, and the myriad of human experience, Nguyen collapses the distance between the reader and the refugees. In lending voice and humanity to this experience, it reminds us that nothing separates us from those born into countries at war and forced to flee, apart from the good fortune of our birth.

***.75

Book Review | The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Theodore Decker is thirteen when his life is ripped apart at the seams. While visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum, a bomb detonates, killing his mother. As he slowly regains consciousness in the wreckage of the blast, a dying man beckons him over, handing him a 17th century masterpiece, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It is on this day that these two events will forever shape the course of Theo’s life.

Alone and adrift in the city, with no siblings or family to speak of other than an absent rather on the West coast, Theo is taken in by wealthy Manhattanites the Barbours. All the while he is moving through a fog of grief, whilst well-meaning adults press onto him cans of soda and meaningful looks, urging him to spill out his deepest emotions. Tartt beautifully describes the incomprehensibility of grief to a 13-year old who has just lost everything;

“Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”

At the behest of the dying man who laid amongst the ruins of the blast, Theo visits the address of Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques dealership. It is here that he meets Hobie, and gets to know the beautiful and mysterious Pippa, who was also caught up in the explosion. But before too long, Theo’s reprobate father turns up with his girlfriend and whisks him off to the Las Vegas desert.

We are suddenly thrown into a geographical – and social – world that could not be in greater contrast to that of New York. It’s here that, for me, the novel takes on a hyperreal quality – everything thrown into sharp relief, the light, colour, heat – the ‘hot mineral emptiness’. Theo meets Boris, a fellow classmate and unruly, motherless figure, and together they spiral down a rabbit hole of drink and drugs – even more extreme when you consider their age. The chapters with Boris in Las Vegas are exquisitely written – and Tartt seamlessly combines the perversity of high jinx and male friendship set to the backdrop of a dark and twisted world where absent parents sell cocaine and implicate themselves in dubious ‘business’ deals.

But Theo can’t stay in Vegas forever, and a series of events culminate in his achingly long bus trip from coast to coast, finally arriving back in the familiar enclaves of New York. And let us not forget the painting; forever by Theo’s side, the ‘still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.’ All his grief for his mother, his loneliness, despair – it is all wrapped up in, inseparable from the Fabritius masterpiece. Hobie, in one of his letters, acknowledges the comfort of objects in a world of constant shift;

“When we are sad—at least I am like this—it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don’t change. Your descriptions of the desert—that oceanic, endless glare—are terrible but also very beautiful. Maybe there’s something to be said for the rawness and emptiness of it all. The light of long ago is different from the light of today and yet here, in this house, I’m reminded of the past at every turn. But when I think of you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship—out in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only stars and sky.”

This passage perfectly encapsulates what I loved about The Goldfinch. The writing is exquisite. This mesmerising novel pulls you along, sweeps you up in its bildungsroman narrative and doesn’t let you go. Even when the plot lags at points, it keeps you spellbound. A lot of the plot is absurd, stretching credulity to the breaking point – and yet, why should this matter? If Tartt can make you believe – which she does – then objective achieved. That’s the power of art.

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Read if you enjoyed: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne