“I am trying to carve out a story between the macabre and the fairy tale, so that a glimmer of truth can appear.”

“There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies – everything in between is speculation.”

Following the end of the Vietnam War, over 1,000,000 refugees fled Vietnam seeking refuge in other countries.  Called the “boat people,” hundreds of thousands did not survive the journey.  Those who did were eventually resettled primarily in the US, the UK, Italy, France, Germany, and Australia. Cecile Pin’s debut, Wandering Souls (Henry Holt 2023) follows a family of the so-called “boat people” of Vietnam.

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Wandering Souls is cobbled from news stories, military records, government records, ghost stories, and the story of a trio of siblings’s resettlement following leaving Vietnam – this is the heart of the novel, because family and home are the beats that keep the siblings alive and the story moving.

As the oldest three, Anh, Minh, and Thanh are sent ahead of the rest of their family. Anh, the eldest, is 16 at the time and the weight of the journey and their story sits squarely on her shoulders. The rest of their family is supposed to join them, but they are lost at sea.  Their parents, two sisters, brother Dao, and the baby all drown. The bodies are recovered and identified by Anh while they are in Hong Kong.

Forever seven, Dao’s wandering ghost claims several sections of the slim novel as he watches his siblings on their journey.  These sections are sweetly rendered, but they drip with an ache of longing to be among the living. Dao’s grief is no less than that of his living siblings.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is being fashioned together by Anh’s daughter, Jane.  Pulling bits and pieces from online resources and independent research and blending that with the snippets her mother and uncles have provided, the story is born. Generational trauma and prolonged grief follow the family, the marks on their lives and the lives of their children are undeniable – the dead in this novel aren’t the only wandering souls.

It’s a grief stricken yet beautiful debut about family and home and belonging.

Read this book.

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