Wandering Souls: A Novel
- By Cecile Pin
- Henry Holt and Co.
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- May 5, 2023
Vietnamese siblings build a new life abroad in this ambitious, frustrating debut.
Wandering Souls tells the story of three siblings who escape the communist regime in Vietnam and eventually settle in England among fellow Vietnamese expats. Anh and her younger brothers Minh and Thanh flee South Vietnam on a boat in 1978 (when Anh is all of 16 years old), three years after the North Vietnamese won the war and seized the country. Although they manage to get away, the rest of their family is inexplicably killed by foreigners called “fishermen.”
In some ways, the book — which covers 45 years and ends in 2023, when Anh is a grandmother — is an account of Anh’s struggles and ultimate victory over them. Toward the end of the novel, she looks back on her life and realizes that she has devoted herself to the maturing and success of her brothers. She concludes that “they weren’t doctors or engineers or millionaires, and there would always be a part of her that wished they had achieved these things. But they had climbed a mountain of impossible odds and impending doom, and looking back, she realized that it had been a vertiginous ascent indeed.”
Strangely, some chapters seem only vaguely related to the main narrative. One, dated 2019, tells of the death of two-dozen Vietnamese immigrants locked in the back of a truck that had traveled across France, reaching the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before boarding a ferry to Essex in England. The text gives details on some of the dead and why they were trying to reach the U.K., but it doesn’t explain the connection between this event and Anh’s family.
The point of view also shifts repeatedly. More often than not, we’re in Anh’s head, but we also see things from the standpoint of many others, including, much later on, her adult daughter, Jane. We even hear from the dead; several chapters unfold through the eyes of Dao, Anh’s 7-year-old brother, who perishes early on:
“I don’t recall much about my death. There had been a storm the night before; the crashing waves rocked the boat and stiffened the baby’s cries…Next, there was weightlessness. As I left my body and gravity left me, I drifted on an ocean of white that was surrounding me, until I was joined by my little brother and father, and by my sisters and mother.”
Several times, author Cecile Pin introduces chapters in the first person without telling us who is speaking. One such instance, roughly halfway through the book, dwells on grief and how it is expressed. Given that it arrives without context, I was at a loss to understand why it was included. Other chapters begin with what appear to be quotes from press reports, one of which relates Margaret Thatcher’s ruminating over whether to admit Vietnamese refugees to England and her ultimately begrudging decision to do so.
Pin is uneven in her use of Vietnamese tones and diacriticals, too, applying them correctly to terms like ông nội and bà nội — paternal grandfather and grandmother — but inconsistently when referring, for example, to an áo dài (long shirt) as an “áo dai.” And she doesn’t use them at all in characters’ names. Anh, when written with no tone, means “older brother,” but it can also be used as the masculine “I” or “you.” Presumably, then, the protagonist’s name is meant to be Ánh, meaning “beam” or “ray of light.”
Wandering Souls is a debut, and it shows. Rather than following a standard novel structure, the book reads more like a personal history presented via episodes recounted from multiple viewpoints. In fact, I ended up wondering if perhaps it isn’t a novel at all but a true story of real people told in fragmented vignettes. Unfortunately, the end result was more confusing than satisfying.
Tom Glenn, Ph.D., is the author of six books of fiction and 17 short stories. Much of his writing is about Vietnam because, as a linguist comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French (the three languages of Vietnam), he spent the better part of 13 years there assisting U.S. troops in combat with signals intelligence and escaped under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975. He retired as early as he could from the government more than 30 years ago to write fiction.