The Refugees, is as impeccably written as it is timed ... This is an important and incisive book written by a major writer with firsthand knowledge of the human rights drama exploding on the international stage — and the talent to give us inroads toward understanding it ... There is no effort to avoid the identity of 'refugee' — this book interrogates the term on political and spiritual levels, and the results are saturated with pain, memory and beauty ... In this collection, towns are altered by war, relatives by time. In some stories, decades pass between letters home to Vietnam, as in 'Fatherland.' There is a thorny dissonance between past and present. The living protagonists are often forced to carry traumatic visions with them as they try to make their way in a new country ... Nguyen is skilled at making us feel the disorientation and alienation of these characters navigating displacement ... The Refugees is a surprisingly sensual book, despite operating in difficult political and emotional terrain. Nguyen crafts sentences with an eye toward physicality and a keen awareness of bodies and their urges ... In an era where writers and readers debate who gets to write what, it is refreshing and essential to have this work from a writer who knows and feels the terrain on an intellectual, emotional and cellular level — it shows. Nguyen offers stories of aftermath, but also of complexity. He gives us human beings weary of pity and tired of sharing rehearsed stories that make them seem like 'one more anonymous young refugee.' In topic and in execution, The Refugees is an exquisite book.
Two of the most touching pieces, both about siblings separated by geography and history, bookend the collection ... The theme of doubleness – choice and inevitability, home and homelessness, starting afresh and being stuck – is present not only in the stories of Vietnamese refugees, but also of those who have become refugees from their own homes and loved ones ... The collection is full of refugees, whether from external turmoil – natural or manmade disasters – or from a deeper, more internal conflict between even those who are closest to each other. With anger but not despair, with reconciliation but not unrealistic hope, and with genuine humour that is not used to diminish anyone, Nguyen has breathed life into many unforgettable characters, and given us a timely book focusing, in the words of Willa Cather, on 'the slow working out of fate in people of allied sentiment and allied blood.'
To illustrate their plight, Nguyen homes in on their bodies rather than their words, so that a more accurate description of what the book does is 'give flesh' to characters at risk of fading from memory, sometimes their own ... As concerned with the aftershocks of war as with war itself, The Refugees mostly elides grisly scenes like the bombings, killings, rapes and tortures that fill Nguyen’s spectacular Pulitzer-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer ... If at times I found myself missing the playful, voice-driven punch of The Sympathizer, it’s a tribute to Nguyen’s range that these eight stories cast a quieter, but no less devastating, spell. The collection’s subtle, attentive prose and straightforward narrative style perfectly suit the low-profile civilian lives it explores (the only military personnel here have long retired). With the volume turned down, we lean in more closely, listening beyond what the refugees say to step into their skins.