A collection of stories, most set amid the Vietnamese exile communities of California, by the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer (2015).
“We had passed our youth in a haunted country,” declares the narrator of the opening story, a ghostwriter who quite literally finds himself writing about ghosts. One in particular is the ghost of his brother, lost somewhere in the chaos of the Vietnam War, who has somehow managed to swim across the ocean to find his family and is now dripping in their hallway. He is not the only ghost: there are other civilians, the eviscerated Korean lieutenant blown apart in a treetop, the unfortunate black GI, "the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water,” and the Japanese private from another war—so many ghosts, so much horror. Some of the living are not much better off. There is, for example, the Madame Thieu–like operator who works the merchants of a refugee shopping district, demanding what amounts to protection money and darkly hinting that they might be accused of being Communists if they do not pay up; she nurses a terrible grief, but that does not make her any less criminal. And then there is the 30-something divorcé, torn between cultures, who cannot seem to find himself in the midst of all the expectations others hold for him but is still enraged when others disappoint him in turn. Nguyen’s slice-of-life approach is precise without being clinical, archly humorous without being condescending, and full of understanding; many of the stories might have been written by a modern Flaubert, if that master had spent time in San Jose or Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyen is the foremost literary interpreter of the Vietnamese experience in America, to be sure. But his stories, excellent from start to finish, transcend ethnic boundaries to speak to human universals.