Having just read a book about the Vietnam War and its long-term impact on the Vietnamese who stayed, Wandering Souls provides a story of those who made the other choice – fleeing to escape reeducation camps and pursue a better life in another country as refugees.
A haunting, gut-wrenching debut novel that paints a tender portrait of three Vietnamese child-refugees and their journey of hope, grief, and survival.
There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies―everything in between is speculation.
After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Minh, and Thanh journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.
In the years that follow, Anh and her brothers immigrate to the UK, living first in overcrowded camps and resettlement centers and then, later, in a modernizing London plagued by social inequality. Anh works in a factory to pay the bills. Minh loiters about with fellow high school dropouts. Thanh, the youngest, plays soccer with his friends after class. As they mature, each sibling reckons with survivor’s guilt, unmoored by their parents’ absence. And with every choice, their paths diverge further, until it’s unclear if love alone can keep them together.
Told through lyrical narrative threads, historical research, voices from lost family, and notes by an unnamed narrator determined to chart these siblings’ fates, Wandering Souls captures the lives of a family marked by loss yet relentless in the pursuit of a better future. With urgency and precision, it affirms that the most important stories are those we claim for ourselves, establishing Cecile Pin as a masterful new literary voice.
Wandering Souls is a debut novel about three siblings who flee Vietnam after the war ahead of their parents and siblings. When tragedy strikes, Anh, the oldest sibling, is left to care for her two brothers while navigating refugee camps and settlement in a new land. It is a story ultimately about grief, duty, identity, and survival.
In Vietnamese culture, there is a belief that if a person is not buried at their home, the soul will be unable to rest and wander the earth. Wandering Souls illustrates this belief on multiple levels – through both the living and the death – as they are lost, looking for refuge, and finding a new home.
Cecile Pin primarily tells the story of Anh and her brothers in this short but impactful novel through three intertwined narratives. Anh is the main narrator while her dead brother Dao, who is a rootless ghost, and a third, mysterious and scholarly narrator provide unique perspective and context to the tale. There is also couple chapters told by an American GI who took part in “Operation Wandering Souls”. Despite being a rather simple and straightforward story, the narratives provide a powerful, complex, and deeply personal look at unresolved grief, healing, and the intergenerational trauma of refugees. What results is a beautiful, compelling novel that pulled at my heart strings.
I find it difficult to pinpoint what makes Wandering Souls such a moving tale. Pin’s writing is concise and clear but also poignant and tender. She manages to skillfully evoke quiet longing that permeates the page.
For me, Wandering Souls fell a bit short when it came to the amount of detail and character development. Pin focuses the story mainly on the big events in the siblings lives, skipping over the quieter moments. I thought this was a missed opportunity to detail the pervasiveness of grief, the struggle to navigate a new place and language, and the attempt to find what feels like home again. In addition, Pin failed to characterize the siblings beyond their position in the family (dutiful older sister, rebellious middle child, etc.). Anh is the most developed character but I still did not feel like I fully understood her. Beyond her grief and need to take care of her brothers, Anh’s motivations and feelings are unknown. I think more pages spent on knowing the characters would have made Wandering Souls a richer novel that resonated more. Because the characters felt a bit distant, and therefore, were difficult to fully connect to, I am not sure how long with story will stay with me.
Overall, Wandering Souls is a strong debut novel that tells the important story of Vietnamese boat people and the experience of resettlement in an unfamiliar country. I highly recommend reading it, and I look forward to what Pin writes next.
March 21, 2023
2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist
Note: I received an advance reader’s copy of this book from its publisher, Henry Holt & Co. Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.