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Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin review – Vietnamese refugees adrift in Thatcher’s Britain

The refugees fleeing the turmoil at the end of the Vietnam war became known as “boat people”. Cecile Pin’s evocative debut, longlisted for the Women’s prize, was inspired by her mother’s experiences while emigrating to France, but she relocates her story to Thatcher’s Britain.

Fifteen-year-old Anh and her younger brothers, Thanh and Minh, are the first of their family to attempt the hazardous journey to Hong Kong. If they didn’t drown, they could be attacked by pirates. Their parents and younger siblings perish at sea. Detained in a camp, Anh swiftly recognises her vulnerability: “she was homeless and smelling and weak. A carrier of disease… perceived as vermin.” The three siblings remain in limbo until the UK agrees to accept them.

On arrival in Hampshire, they are taken to Sopley, a former Royal Air Force base, surrounded by barbed wire. Anh cares for her brothers until they are rehoused on a council estate in Catford, south London. She works as a seamstress while the boys continue their studies.

Thatcher suggested to her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Fraser, that they buy an island to process and resettle the boat people

Threaded through this central narrative is the voice of their youngest brother, Dao (one of the titular wandering souls), meditations on grief and loss, and fragments of authorial research. Pin reminds us of the psychological warfare known as Operation Wandering Soul, used by the American military in Vietnam to intimidate the Viet Cong. Playing on the local belief that the unburied will never find peace, at night they would broadcast a tape meant to represent the cries of the dead.

One damning fact is particularly resonant. Thatcher pretended to welcome Vietnamese refugees, but Downing Street files released in 2009 reveal her reluctance to help 10,000 of them on racial grounds, believing white refugees would be easier to assimilate. Instead, she suggested to her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Fraser, that they buy an island to process and resettle the boat people.

Pin relates the hardship and trauma of her characters in unadorned, direct prose. This lean, affecting book packs a mighty punch and heralds a dazzling new talent.

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin is published by Fourth Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply