You might think that a memoir of persecution in Vietnam, of desperate flight on a leaky boat and a struggle to build a new life in Australia, is hardly laughing material. The Happiest Refugee would prove you wrong. Not only did Anh Do and his family live through those harrowing experiences, but he grew up to be a comedian.
One of the most unique things about The Happiest Refugee is the style of the writing. It gave me the eerie sensation that I wasn’t reading a book at all, but rather listening to Anh Do tell the story, or perhaps watching him on stage. In fact, to some extent the whole book feels like an extended version of a comedy routine, often digressing from the story to cover some incidental event and leading up to a punchline. You get the impression that making jokes is so much a reflex, Do can’t help himself. There are no poetic descriptions of the shadows of leaves on water here, no more than you would hear them down the local pub – Do gives it to us direct. I found this distinctive voice to be one of the strengths of the book, although some may find it an uncomfortable reading experience.
The events covered in the book are in any case dramatic enough without needing further ornamentation. His family’s escape from Vietnam, the attacks by pirates on their boat and the difficulties of adjusting to a new country provide plenty of material. In addition, Do provides the book with a strong emotional core by delving into his relationship with his father, one that is conflicted at the best of times. His journey from hero-worship of his father, to effectively throwing him out of the house as a teenager, to a reconciliation many years later, binds the book together and Do’s honesty is impressive. It must have been tempting to avoid writing about issues that are clearly still sensitive but Do holds little back.
Because of its simple style, The Happiest Refugee is likely to appeal to reluctant readers as well as fan’s of Do’s comedy. I have the feeling that male readers may enjoy it more than female (who may prefer Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem which deals with similar territory) but the awards it has won show that it also has wide appeal. Do should be congratulated for a dramatic tale told simply and well, and in a distinctive voice that is all his own.