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Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin - Review

Saturday, May 11, 2024

I picked this book up in February in Edinburgh. I was staying with a friend and she had to work, so one day I went to Portobello Bookshop in Portobello to spend a voucher that I had been given for my birthday. I picked up four books and this was one of them! It was actually the first book I picked up in the shop. Recently I've had a few books that I've 'had' to read and it's been a bit of a slog, so I picked this one up because I really wanted to read it. I wanted to treat myself, as it were. And I ended up loving it and sped through it, so it was the perfect thing I needed!

The book starts in 1978 in Vietnam. Anh, Minh, and Thanh are packing to leave. They are the eldest children in a family with seven children - Mai, Van, Hoang, and Dao - and their parents. The war has ended and many Vietnamese are leaving the country. Anh's dad's brother is already in the United States, in New Haven, so the family is planning to emmigrate, via Hong Kong. Anh and her brothers will go first, and the other six will follow soon behind. 

Anh, Minh, and Thanh arrive in Hong Kong and are taken to a camp. There they will stay, waiting for their parents. They make friends with a young boy in their hut, Duc, and his grandmother, Ba (I apologise for not being able to put the correct accents over the letters in some of these names). Then they are told that their family has died. Anh identifies the bodies of her parents and siblings; they are buried in Hong Kong. Workers from the camp ask Anh if she has any relatives in America but Anh says no because she blames her uncle for her dad wanting to leave Vietnam. She's angry with him, so says no. Because of that, the children's application for refugee status in the US is denied, and instead, they are sent to England.

They arrive into freezing cold weather and have to stay at first in a similar camp in the south. There they are taught English and experience snow for the first time. By this time Anh is about eighteen and the boys are at school. She is a seamstress. The family is moved to London, to a council flat in Peckham, not too far from Duc and Ba. They have to share the bed in the one bedroom there is. Minh kind of falls apart. Thanh is a clever student, but Anh isn't sure that she can get him to university. Anh works in a clothing factory. It's Thatcher's Britain, the mid 80s, and being an immigrant isn't easy. 

The book is quite a saga - it moves on vastly in time and we see Anh as a much older woman. I really liked her - she was trying to do the right thing by everyone all the time, while being extremely young and having lived through a ton of trauma herself. I liked her brothers too; I felt for both of them. It's not just a story about this family but it's about a lot of families who have lived through similar trauma and who have come to the UK for a safe haven. 

Part of the book is also sort of free verse from Dao's point of view - from the point of view of a small child who is now a ghost and who is watching his surviving siblings from the afterlife. I liked this - it points towards the family's religious beliefs and the ceremony that they perform to remember their dead ancestors. I love this stuff.

This is a brilliant book and I would urge you all to read it. I'm giving itr five out of five. 

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