Caroline Vu’s Palawan Story is about the young Kim Nguyen’s unwitting and traumatic escape from the 1970’s Communist Vietnam to the Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines, to her eventual arrival in the United States thanks to a case of mistaken identity.
While the story of survival told from a child’s perspective and later re-dissected through Kim’s adult eyes is one that merits readers’ attention alone, it is Vu’s ability to keep her readers emotionally aligned with her narrator that really secures this novel’s literary merits. Vu displays an uncanny ability to produce an astutely observant narrator whose descriptions and inner monologues systematically develop and become more complex in time with the character’s own growth, all while letting her readers’ completely immerse themselves in the life of a refugee.
However, it is not only what is written on the page that holds interest; Vu’s novel places as much importance on what is outright said as what is not. The book is filled with one-sided conversations, in which the speaker solely gets the spotlight, only acknowledging other listeners through the occasional reprimand or direct address. This similarly reflects Kim’s own internal struggle, as she manages to piece her identity and personal history with the bits of information that those around her have chosen to share — which is, more often than not, very limited.
Vu’s writing fuels the readers’ imagination as Kim attempts to trace what happened on the boat to Palawan as well as to the other members of her family. The author keeps her readers’ undivided attention through her witty and unapologetic descriptions of people and their faults, as well as the desperation humans are willing to endure for the sake of survival.
Although Kim’s story is heartbreakingly difficult to bear at times, the marked ease with which Vu writes helps guide readers through each challenge. This novel — the author’s first to be published — certainly deserves the attention it has been receiving and is well worth the read.