Wandering Souls: A Novel

Image of Wandering Souls: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

Debut novels are often overlooked by avid readers because of the wealth of works by well-known authors. This one should not be. In just 220 pages Cecile Pin’s novel deserves attention for its simple, carefully chosen, often heartbreaking language and its well-constructed scenes that explore themes like family, duty, identity and love. It also offers a much-needed human face that reveals the trauma of immigration and asylum seeking, so often reduced to numbers and stereotypical assumptions.

The story follows three siblings who have managed to escape Vietnam just before Saigon falls. Teenagers at the time of their escape, they are among the many “boat people” whose families have paid smugglers exorbitant fees to flee violence and death in the war’s waning days. They survive near drowning and reach Hong Kong where they await their parents and four younger siblings who never arrive. Thus begin years of life as refugees seeking asylum while suffering the pain of enormous loss and continual practical and emotional challenges.

Ultimately, they are relocated to England where they share a one-bedroom apartment, do manual labor, and strive to learn English while adapting to English culture. Anh, the oldest child, assumes the role of head of household-cum-mother to her two younger brothers and somehow, over many years, they assimilate as they journey into an unknown future and a hard-won sense of self.

This is not a spoiler alert because the three main characters, along with others who people their lives, are sharing stories about themes that speak to the human condition. They help us understand guilt, loyalty, friendship, belonging, and filial, parental and romantic love, along with the will to survive and thrive while struggling to defeat forces that act to deny one’s dignity.

Told through short narratives, historical events, and the voice of a lost sibling and future progeny we bear witness to the reality of otherness and the importance of making our own way in the world despite unimaginable obstacles.

Based on Pin’s mother’s true story of loss in the 1970s, the book serves as a monument in words and a celebration of small triumphs that constitute a life well-lived. In the voice of her deceased young brother, Pin gives readers her reason for telling her grandmother’s tale. “Perhaps I could point fingers. I could blame politics. I could blame war and poverty and pirates and the sea and the storm. But the more I go on, the more I realize that nothing is to blame, and everything is to blame, intertwined in a medley of cause and effect, history, and nature. I am trying to carve out a story between the macabre and the fairy tale, so that a glimmer of truth can appear.”

Later, an unnamed character says, “I always come back, not because I am drawn to the horrors but because I feel a visceral need to know them. Knowledge allows remembering and remembering is honoring. I want all the dead to be revered.”

As the book comes to a close, Pin writes her final vignette in the voice of Anh’s daughter. “We fill in the gaps. We find stories in every little moment and gather them up readily. We imagine the unknown . . . and we try to make sense of the senseless. We look for the silver linings and they whys and what-ifs and what-should-have-beens We try to solve the puzzle, pieces scattered through time and space and the deepest corners of our memories. What better way is there of doing that, what better way is there of processing our past, than by rewriting it?”

Therein, Pin bares her own wandering soul while building monuments that we should all read, remember, and revere.