What I read: Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Wandering Souls by Cecile PinWandering Souls by Cecile Pin is a literary historical fiction that tells the story of three Vietnamese siblings who escape their war-ravaged country in 1978 and seek asylum in the UK. Anh, Minh and Thanh face many obstacles and difficulties as they try to adjust to a new culture, deal with the loss of their parents and other siblings, and find their own identities and paths in life. Along the way, they are tormented by the spirits of their family members who died away from home and who narrate parts of the story. The novel also examines the themes of love, ancestry, storytelling, and the meaning of home.

“I didn’t know that my culture had fashioned the shape of my mourning; I didn’t know that my grief could be improper.”

Pin writes with a lyrical and poetic style that conveys the emotions and struggles of her characters. She also uses various narrative techniques, such as historical documents, voices from lost family, and notes by an unnamed narrator, to create a rich and complex story that spans different times and places. The novel is not only a personal and intimate account of one family’s journey, but also a wider reflection on how and why refugee stories are told and how they shape our understanding of history and humanity.

“There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation.”

Wandering Souls is a powerful and moving novel that portrays the Vietnamese refugee experience with sensitivity and nuance. It is a heart-wrenching examination of one family’s refugee experience, the loss and the relentless determination intricately intertwined to create a narrative that centers hopefulness. The author can use stories to provide a glimpse of the impacts of having to wander away from your home to find refuge, and the ways we come back to ourselves. The novel also shows that stories are powerful and important for refugees and for everyone.

“In the years to come, Thi Anh would let the harrowing memories of the boat and the camp trickle out of her until they were nothing but a whisper. But she would hold on to that last evening with all her might, from the smell of the steaming rice in the kitchen to the touch of her mother’s skin as she embraced her for the last time.”

Cecile Pin 
Wandering SoulsI liked the way the book used different perspectives and voices to tell the story. I think it made the story more engaging and diverse. I also liked the way the book explored the theme of storytelling and how it can help us cope with trauma and connect with our roots. I was moved by the story written with a lot of compassion, particularly of Anh trying her best to look after her brothers while being a kid herself.

I think some readers might find it challenging to follow the multiple narrative threads and the jumps in time and space. I also think some readers might want more closure or resolution for the characters, especially Anh, who seemed to sacrifice a lot for her brothers and did not get much recognition or reward. I also found one chronological jump very jolting where she goes from being a young lady in her twenties being courted and starting her new secretarial job to twenty years later married with grown children in the same paragraph.

Overall, I think Wandering Souls is a remarkable debut that deserves to be widely read and appreciated. It is painfully sad and yet sweet and even funny in places. This story casts its gaze on the stories of people often forgotten by history – it’s beautiful.

“Stories are not just for entertainment. They are also for survival. They are how we make sense of our lives, how we give them shape and meaning.”

With thanks to Jonathan Ball Publishers for the opportunity to read this book.

The Details

From Jonathan Ball Publishers

Category: Fiction Books
ISBN: 9780008528782
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Inc
On sale in South Africa: April 2023
Format: Paperback

About the Author

Cecile Pin About — Cecile Pin