Is there a more compelling story than that of a person forced to flee their home due to war or famine and take their chances on survival as a refugee? The theme appears in literature again and again, from the Bible to The Grapes of Wrath. Here are five terrific books of contemporary fiction that will humanize the stories of refugees in the news.
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
It’s hard to predict what books will endure, but this understated, elemental novel, blending stark realism with a dash of magic, has the feel of an instant classic. Hamid tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, a young man and woman who meet each other in a classroom “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” Nadia wears a full black robe, not because she’s religious—she isn’t—but because she wants to move independently through this unnamed Muslim city, where she has made the unusual choice for an unmarried woman of moving into an apartment by herself. Saeed is enchanted. By the time violence starts to demolish their city, they are in love. They make the risky choice to migrate when they hear of magicals door that will transport them to other places. As they join a mob of international refugees moving through these doors into various stable countries in the West and trying to eke out a new existence, can their love survive?
Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
In the opening section of this masterwork by a French novelist of Russian Jewish heritage who was killed in the Holocaust, Némirovsky captures a panoramic view of the 1940 evacuation of Paris in advance of the arrival of the Nazis, who had recently defeated the French army. Némirovsky creates vivid characters from a variety of walks of life—including a wealthy, haughty author, a young priest in charge of orphan hooligans, and a married couple ordered by the bank they work at to relocate—and follows them as they take the road out of Paris. Some travel by car as long as the gasoline lasts, others by foot. All of them are changed irrevocably by this forced migration that separates parents from children, workers from their livelihoods, and many from their dignity.
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen followed his 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer with this collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees of all different ages, genders, and occupations. The stories are set in the U.S. and Vietnam, as refugees displaced by the Vietnam War try to settle into foreign surroundings, or return to the country they left behind, all of them haunted, some literally, by ghosts. Through these poignant stories, Nguyen reminds us that a refugee never stops being a refugee, a person forcibly separated from their homeland, even long after they’ve settled into a new life.
What Is the What, by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers based this wonderful 2006 novel on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, forced out of his home by violence in Sudan as a young boy. He became one of the region’s “lost boys,” leaving his family behind and migrating on foot to the nearest refugee camp, in Kenya, and eventually immigrating to the U.S. Although the subject matter is bleak, Eggers injects a buoyancy and wit into its telling that matches the charisma and unremitting hope of its subject.
Across A Hundred Mountains, by Reyna Grande
Reyna Grande’s heartrending novel tells the story of nine-year-old Reyna, whose baby sister dies in a flood in a Mexican village. When her family can’t pay the debt for the funeral, her father Miguel migrates to the U.S. to find a better paying job. Several years later, after further family tragedy, Juana heads north in a desperate attempt to find her father. She’s smuggled by coyotes on a perilous journey across the desert.