WANDERING SOULS, by Cecile Pin
There’s a Vietnamese superstition: If you die away from home, your soul will become restless and won’t leave for the afterlife. Instead, you will be cursed to roam the earth as a ghost, hungry and cold, left without the closure to move on. This folk belief is the starting point of Cecile Pin’s debut novel, “Wandering Souls.”
In 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon, a Vietnamese teenager, Anh, packs for an escape from Vietnam with two of her six younger siblings. The plan: Sail by boat to Hong Kong, where the three will wait for the rest of their family, and once reunited, they’ll all relocate to the United States. Anh and her brothers Minh and Thanh successfully land in Hong Kong, but the wait for the rest of their family stretches longer than expected.
Eventually, bodies are found on the beach of a refugee camp. Among them is the rest of their family, who are buried on foreign ground. From then on, the three siblings are one another’s only family, a bond that is tested once they relocate to Britain, where they must not only survive but thrive because “if the three of them did not achieve success here, their family’s demise had no meaning, no overarching resolution.”
“Wandering Souls” begins very much like other novels about refugees. At its center are loss and the difficulties of starting over, the drudgery of survival and the necessity of assimilation. Pin is observant of how immigration shuffles families. Left without their parents, Anh becomes the de facto mother of the household. At 16, she sacrifices her education to work as a seamstress so her brothers can go to school and, she hopes, become prosperous. “She thought their success might make her own sacrifices worthwhile,” Pin writes, “that it would give deeper meaning to the labor she’d done to provide for them over the years.”
But who is Anh beyond her surrogate motherhood? Unfortunately, Pin gives us little opportunity to find out. We see Anh making her siblings’ favorite dishes and we’re with her as she stays up late worrying over the whereabouts of Minh, her delinquent teenage brother, but we know very little about her desires and the dreams she has for herself.
Yet “Wandering Souls” is more than a story of sacrifice and familial duty. The author has greater ambitions, first signaled in the intricate story structure she builds. Slowly, the novel takes wayward paths into the lives of the family’s lingering ghosts who invisibly observe the three siblings, and Pin mixes in fictionalized documents (like a newspaper article revealing Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobic attitudes toward Vietnamese refugees) that showcase the very real conservative politics of the 1980s. And most surprisingly, as the story unfolds, the voice of a new narrator begins to creep in, one that pulls from the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, the “Iliad” and Joan Didion. Soon it becomes apparent the voice belongs to a writer, one preoccupied with loss: what it looks like, the grief it creates and the meaning — however tenuous — we give it. This narrator shares a telling quote by Didion: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”
What emerges is something special — a polyvocal novel, an essay on inherited trauma and a quiet metafiction about telling stories we don’t own. At times, it’s unclear exactly where Pin is going — for instance, there’s a superfluous thread about American soldiers serving in Vietnam — but we follow because Pin’s novel is less about the story and more about how the story is made. Reading it is like watching a writer at work as she tries to give loss a plot and make meaning out of details. This proves to be more fascinating than the story of three siblings acclimating to their new home.
“Wandering Souls” asks: How should we tell refugee stories? Why should we tell them? And to whom? And, most important, what should we do with refugee stories, especially when years have passed and those who lived them are gone?
Eric Nguyen is the author of “Things We Lost to the Water.”
WANDERING SOULS | By Cecile Pin | 226 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $26.99