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In Cecile Pin’s poignant debut novel “Wandering Souls,” Pin explores loss, grief, and the beauty of learning to live again. The novel presents the story of 16-year-old Thi Anh and her family as they escape Vung Tham, Vietnam, hoping to reach the United States. But the uncertainties of the journey alter Anh’s life forever. She becomes the head of the family, forcing her to grow up quickly and remain strong for her two younger siblings as they grapple with the weight of their parents’ sacrifice and loss. Along the way, they learn to lean on each other, heal their deepest wounds, and honor the memory of their loved ones by building their own fulfilling lives.
Pin immerses the reader into the family’s migration story from the very start of the novel, opening with a tense dinner table scene in which Anh’s parents worry about the perilous fate that awaits them. Pin’s vivid descriptions of the prepared dishes, the mother’s humming, and the haunting silence immerse the reader in the family’s anxious state as they prepare to embark on a life-changing trip across the sea to the United States. But it becomes increasingly clear that not everyone will survive.
In depicting the struggles the siblings endure day by day, Pin does a remarkable job of portraying a refugee’s experience of starting over while simultaneously recovering from the pain of losing loved ones. However, the experience of the living is not the novel’s only focus. Pin also shines light on the importance of telling the stories of those who have been silenced, and how these inherited narratives can shape the lives of those who strive to make the suffering worth it. When the three siblings arrive in London, the novel draws attention to their newfound responsibility to live out the dream their parents wished for them.
The majority of “Wandering Souls” follows the siblings as they resettle and assimilate into a new culture. Anh gives up her aspirations to pursue an education and gets a job as a seamstress instead to support her family, while trying to guide her brothers on the right path. Pin most strikingly depicts the reality of the migration experience through the story of Anh’s younger brother Minh, whose lack of hope and work ethic place a strain on his relationship with Anh. Through their heartbreaking arguments, Pin conveys the difficulty of being “tainted” with foreignness, dealing with the pressure of achieving success, and reckoning with the guilt of becoming a burden that stops a loved one from achieving the life they longed for.
Unfortunately, readers may struggle to get to know Anh outside of her role as a worried, hardworking, self-sacrificial sister. Only in rare moments do readers glimpse Anh’s frustration and regret, such as an outburst where she says to Minh, “I’ve given everything to you. I didn’t ask for this. I could have done so much more without you holding me back. You’ve ruined seven years of my life.” Although the siblings grow up and start their own families at the end of the novel, there is not enough said about Anh’s own desires and the path she takes to fulfill them.
Throughout the novel, Pin establishes an intimate and emotional tie between the reader and the characters. She accomplishes this through vivid, moving imagery in her prose, elegantly describing late nights where they hold each other tightly while reminiscing about their childhood, gruesome scenes of torturous pain on the boat, and heartbreaking revelations. One of the novel’s most impactful elements is the inclusion of the voice of Dao, a brother who passes away at the beginning of the novel. Pin alternates between chapters that tell the three siblings’ refugee story and Dao’s perspective as he watches from afar. Through this, Pin highlights the prominent Vietnamese belief that those who die away from home will, without the necessary closure, be cursed to remain a ghost on earth. As Anh’s family becomes wandering souls in the literal sense, Dao watches over his siblings, wishing he could reach out and feel their touch once more.
The novel incorporates multiple voices and storylines that intertwine with one another by the story’s end. In addition to Dao’s point of view, Pin tells the three siblings’ story through the voice of a narrator who seems to be dealing with their own form of loss and grief. Additionally, she incorporates the story of two American soldiers serving in Vietnam who are forced to terrorize the local people. Although this perspective does not seem necessary at first, it slowly reveals the injustices Anh’s family would have faced had they stayed in Vietnam. In “Wandering Souls,” Pin presents a moving depiction of the beauty that comes from stories of perseverance and the healing power that painful memories hold.
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