Book Review: The Refugees

The issue of refugees and immigration is a pulsing, red, hot button of our times. The atmosphere of hate and suspicion that surrounds much of the discourse around this issue is stifling, and largely ignores the humanity of the people themselves. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a poignant look at the lives such displaced souls build, at the roots they try to carry with them, and the roots they put down again.


The Refugees is a short anthology of eight short stories, each of them a gem.

Black-Eyed Women is a ghost story, about a writer who is visited by the ghost of her brother, who died protecting her. It is filled with love and loss, the only horror in it evoked when one thinks of the hardship and cruelty that refugees have to deal with.

In The Other Man a Vietnamese man comes to the USA and lives with a gay couple, one of whom is English and the other from Hong Kong. It deals with ideas like culture shock and assimilation.

War Years is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Told from the POV of a 13 year old boy, it describes the conflict between a woman collecting money to fight the communists and his mother, who is unwilling to part with hard-earned money for what she believes is a futile cause.

In The Transplant a white man tries to form a connection with the son of a man whose liver was transplanted into him, saving his life. It raises questions of identity.

I’d Love You To Want Me is the poignant, touching tale of the wife of an Alzheimer’s patient. He keeps calling her by another name, making her wonder if her husband had an affair in the past.

The Americans negotiates the push and pull of the past versus the present, through the differing perspectives of a daughter volunteering in Vietnam and her father who fought in the war.

In Someone Else Besides You, a son resents his father, and this leads him to make some decisions he regrets. The father attempts to make things right. This story is another one of my favourites, as it, like the previous story, navigates the generation gap with great sensitivity.

The closing story Fatherland, like the first, is about siblings. But in this case, step siblings, who are each other’s namesake, and who are separated by geography. It explores ideas of staying behind versus risking everything for a new life.

Familial bonds, ideas of loss and love, of belonging and identity are some of the common themes that run through these stories. The characters in each of these stories shine, flaws and all.

In all honesty, my words do not do justice to the gentle, sad beauty of this collection. Living in today’s world where issues of home and homelessness abound, where suspicions breed a lack of empathy, The Refugees is a bit like a pain balm that stings initially, but offers relief later in the form of hope.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have you read this author’s award winning book The Sympathizer? Let me know in the comments!

FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

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24 thoughts on “Book Review: The Refugees

  1. The word refugee is enticing enough to make me get this book.
    I loved your description of every story, so I think, I’ll love this collection.
    I’ll try to get my hands on a physical copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read The Sympathizer yet either! In any case this is a stand alone book. So go ahead and read it 😊


  2. This sounds like one I’d love to read, I recently read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and found its surreal aspects distancing, I guess it was a little too intellectual once they’d become refugees.
    I too have The Sympathiser on my shelf to read and will look out for this, thank you such a thoughtful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expected it to be a heavier read than it was, and this was not exactly light, but too difficult a read either. I hope you will read this and enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read this author, though the name is everywhere. I have to say, I LOVE the image on that cover. It reminds me of this series of Kurt Vonnegut books that came out and were all meant to have similar covers so they look nice on the shelf. I am very tired of that font, though. Someone found it and has been convincing publishers to use it with the same insistence as the cranberry salesman who got his fruit in all the other juices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • πŸ˜‚ I can’t say I’ve noticed the font flying around so much, but I think now I’ll keep a closer watch! I wonder if there’s a non-salesman reason why it’s overused.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure. It looks so slapdash to me. Check out the covers of The Girls by Emma Cline, Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, The Burning Girl by Claire Messud, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene.

        Liked by 1 person

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