The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

It’s becoming more obvious to lots of people nowadays that we need to read stories that don’t align with our own lifestyles. Whatever shape that takes, whether it’s LGBT+ fiction or reports of life in far-flung countries, people are finally starting to understand that as the world becomes more globalised, we need to be able to empathise with others in new ways.

That’s not always easy to do, because understanding another person’s experience is so difficult that for millennia philosophers have been debating whether it’s even possible. But what we can all do is try, and books like Nguyen’s The Refugees are a small way to do just that. 

The challenges and joys of immigration are something I read a lot about, considering that one of my company’s biggest clients is a website for expats. And while a lot of people’s experiences are very personal and are specific to their own situations, some are quite universal: the feeling of being adrift, away from everything you’ve known; trying to make friends in a new land amongst an alien culture; working out how much of yourself has been defined by the environment in which you’ve grown up and how much is truly ‘you’.

Nguyen explores all these questions and more in a series of short stories that’s worth reading if you’ve ever lived abroad yourself, or wondered what it might feel like to do so. Of course, being specifically about refugees, it also deals with some of the unique challenges they face, especially in terms of power structures and status gaps between a person’s prior and new home.

I loved what the book was trying to do, and I think most readers will greatly enjoy it. Nguyen’s characters are interesting and the storylines themselves aren’t particularly far-fetched, with one or two spooky exceptions. Personally I’m really not a fan of short stories: I read so quickly that I feel like I’ve only just started a short story before it’s suddenly ending, so I couldn’t get into these like I wanted to be able to. However, if short stories in general don’t put you off, this is definitely a book that’s worth reading.

The Refugees was published by Little, Brown on 1st February 2018.

I received a free copy of an advance proof from the publisher in exchange for a review. In reality it’s difficult to tell if this affected my view of it, because arguably we’re all affected by every experience we have, but suffice it to say I’ve trashed review copies I haven’t liked in the past, so I doubt it makes enough of a difference to skew my viewpoint on it. 


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