Originally published: 2 March 2023
Author: Cecile Pin
Published by: 4th Estate
Page count: 256
Reading dates: 2-4 March 2023
There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies – everything in between is speculation.
One night, not long after the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh flee their village and embark on a perilous boat journey to Hong Kong. Their parents and four younger siblings make the crossing in another vessel but as weeks go by it becomes clear that only one party has survived the voyage.
Anh, Thanh and Minh suddenly find themselves alone in the world, without family or home. They travel on, navigating refugee camps and resettlement centres until, by a twist of fate, they arrive in Thatcher’s Britain. Here they must somehow build new lives with only each other to turn to, but will that be enough in a place that doesn’t seem to want them?
In this piercing debut, the siblings’ faltering journey is deftly interwoven with the voice of their lost younger brother, Dao, following them from a place between the living and the dead, and the records of an unknown researcher intent on gathering the strands of their story. Revelatory and inventive, Wandering Souls paints a heart-wrenching portrait of a family in unimaginable adversity while exploring the healing power of stories.
I was lucky enough to review a proof copy of Wandering Souls at the 4th Estate Live Event back in January and to hear Cecile speak. Wandering Souls is a short story but packs a hug emotional punch. Telling the story of siblings Anh, Thanh & Minh in November 1978 and they prepare to leave their home in Vietnam to travel to Hong Kong, before going to America to join their Uncle in America. The 3 siblings are leaving ahead of their parents and other siblings, the plan being to meet them in Hong Kong and then travel on together. The siblings arrive at a dockyard in Hong Kong where they are kept in quarantine and then onto Kai Tak where they are placed in a camp with other refugees, but it soon transpire their parents and other siblings drowned on their trip and Anh, at just 13 is left as the one to take care of her brothers.
Spanning 40 years, we follow Anh and her two brothers as they eventually find their way to London and make a life for themselves in the UK. It is a shocking story which taught me a lot. I had no idea that there were so many refugees from Vietnam and what happened to them. As well as the main narrative of the story we also see news reports and hear how Margaret Thatcher was reluctant to take refugees from Asia, instead preferring to take white refugees. We also hear from the siblings dead brother Dao who is watching them, an unknown reporter writing their story and from the soldiers involved in the Vietnam war, learning where the term “Wandering Souls” comes from.
Wandering Souls is based on the story of Pin’s own mother who lost her parents and 5 siblings on their journey to France from Vietnam. It is a beautiful and moving piece of writing which taught me a lot. I had no idea the UK had camps for refugees back in the early 1980s or that so many immigrants were rehomed here. The challenges the siblings face are immense – the language barrier despite the siblings’ having learnt some English, trying to find work and racism to name but a few. Anh being the eldest is responsible for keeping everything afloat while the boys finish their education.
Both memorable and moving, I really liked the format of this book with the different narratives. I enjoy reading books that teach me something and Wandering Souls made me aware of events I knew little about. A wonderful debut – one which I will be recommending to everyone.
Many thanks to 4th Estate Books for a copy of the proof which I picked up at 4th Estate Live back in January.
About the author:
Cecile Pin grew up in Paris and New York City. She moved to London at eighteen to study Philosophy at University College London, followed by an MA at King’s College London. She previously worked in publishing. She writes for Bad Form Review, was longlisted for their Young Writer’s prize and is a London Writers Awards 2021 winner (Literary Fiction category). Her debut novel Wandering Souls will be published in eleven territories in 2023, including by 4th Estate (UK) and Henry Holt (US).
Twitter – https://twitter.com/CecilekvPin
Website – https://cecilepin.com/
I went to school with a girl who made the same journey, I never spoke to her about it and wish I had now