Cecile Pin's debut novel, "Wandering Souls," is at its core a tenderhearted story about the least tender of experiences: that of refugee children, separated from their parents and extended family, forced to grow up on their own in a foreign country.
In this case it's 1978 Vietnam and older sister Anh is sent by her parents along with her two younger brothers, Minh and Thanh, to Hong Kong, where the rest of the family plans to reunite. Unfortunately, the parents and younger children perish when their boat capsizes at sea, and the three siblings are orphaned. In the refugee camp in Hong Kong, the three children must fend for themselves and end up being sent to England, rather than to the United States, where an uncle in Connecticut was expecting them.
Pin does an excellent job of portraying the loneliness and longing for family that the children experience. They move from the refugee camp in Hong Kong to another in Hampshire, England, their lives always in a state of transit. As Pin writes of Anh, "She wanted a place to call home, not a hut in which people were always coming and going. She wanted to settle, not wander."
Interspersed with the chapters detailing the siblings' attempts to adjust to life in England are documents from Thatcher-era England showing the policies affecting refugees as well as short poem-like passages from the point of a view of a literal ghost, hovering between realms. It is the soul of one of their drowned siblings, now tailing after them and observing them.
As Anh and her brothers grow up, a fifth perspective is introduced, that of Anh's youngest daughter, Jane, who wants to write about her mother's experiences but frets that she doesn't really understand her mother well enough. Jane's chapters reveal the transgenerational trauma passed from mother to daughter, but also the hope for healing.
These brief sections also provide meta-commentary on the events of the book: "I am trying to carve out a story between the macabre and the fairy tale, so that a glimmer of truth can appear."
Pin's prose is quietly powerful, her voice assured, her love for this fictional family apparent on every page.
Pin herself grew up in Paris and London. She was a 2021 London Writers Award winner. "Wandering Souls" was inspired by her mother's experiences as a refugee from Vietnam.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of two short story collections, "Tomorrow in Shanghai" and "Useful Phrases for Immigrants," winner of an American Book Award.
By: Cecile Pin.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 240 pages, $25.99.