Review

Haunting tales of heartbreak

A woman wakes in the dark to a knock on her door. It is her brother, dripping wet and no older than he was the day she watched him die on a fishing boat out of war-torn Vietnam, 25 years ago.

"How did he get here?" she demands of her mother, the only other living survivor of that crossing. "He swam," her mother retorts with a pitying look. "That's how come it took him so many years."

Within the opening pages of its first story Black-Eyed Women, Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen's new short story collection hits like a punch in the gut. In a remarkable meditation on what it is to be haunted by the past - in more than one sense - he demonstrates his gift of giving voice to that which has been forced to remain unsaid.

Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, The Refugees is about the Vietnamese experience of forced migration. The Sympathizer is a hard act to follow, but The Refugees' eight stories are pared so thin of superfluity that their elegant brevity more than stands up against their brilliant - if at times convoluted - predecessor.

  • FICTION

  • THE REFUGEES

    By Viet Thanh Nguyen

    Corsair/Hardcover/ 209 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

The narrator of Black-Eyed Women is a ghost-writer of other people's tragedies, but cannot tell her own. Her brother's ghost has come all this way to her because she is haunted by something else - the unspeakable things that happened to her on the day he died.

Nguyen weaves a harrowing yet heartening portrait of trauma and what it takes for someone who has endured so much to reclaim her own story. The only unfortunate thing about Black-Eyed Women, if we are to nitpick, is that the other stories pale in comparison in its wake. Each, however, would be a gem in another anthology.

Instead of the overwhelming despair one might expect from a collection about the displaced, these are varied tales of lives in the aftermath of crisis, from domestic heartbreak to wry suburban farce.

The stories range from The Other Man, in which a young Vietnamese refugee experiences culture shock when he is taken in by a gay San Francisco couple, to Fatherland, in which a girl in Ho Chi Minh City meets the glamorous American half-sister whom her father lost and still favours over her.

Nguyen tries an unexpected yet oddly compelling perspective in The Americans, in which an ex- fighter pilot in the Vietnam War begrudgingly visits, at his daughter's behest, the land he once bombed.

"In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories," says one refugee. This timely collection brings those stories to light with devastating grace.

Olivia Ho

If you like this, read: When Heaven And Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip and Jay Wurts (Plume, 1993, $25.68, Books Kinokuniya), a memoir about Hayslip's violent youth amid the Vietnam War and her immigration to America.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Haunting tales of heartbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe