From lost identities to lost tribes

Catfish & Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey by Andrew X Pham | Hungry for Home: Leaving the Blaskets by Cole Moreton | Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten, by Riccardo Orizio
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Catfish & Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey by Andrew X Pham (Flamingo, £10.99)

Andrew Pham is a Vietnamese American. In Vietnam, his name was An. He is a "Viet-kieu". His family was among the "Boat People" who escaped from Vietnam after the Communist victory and were taken to "the promised land" by well-meaning Christians from the Deep South. Fleeing the bible-bashers, they wound up in California, striving for the American Dream. Until, that is, a Vietnam veteran in the Mexican desert begged Pham's forgiveness for crimes against his people, and he realised that he didn't know who his people were. In search of a cultural identity, Pham takes a cathartic journey back to his roots, cycling the length of Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi.

On the surface, Catfish & Mandala is one of those bike-across-the-Pacific Rim-and-find-yourself books - which is very Californian but not very Vietnamese. But it's much more than that. Interweaving past and present, Catfish & Mandala is also a poignant memoir and an attempt to exorcise a family tragedy - the suicide of Pham's sister, Chi. Chi died, Pham is told, because she became too American. She was self-centred, rather than selfless like a true Vietnamese daughter. Far from being an American Dream success story, Pham's family turns out to be trapped in its own dysfunction.

But if that sounds a bit heavy, it's not. Catfish & Mandala is, above all, a lively adventure, the personal drama unfolding gradually, leaving us on the edge of our seats. It is also full of humour, a healthy dose of diarrhoea and haemorrhoids, and a dash of Californian introspection.

Bursting with wild characters, Pham's book exposes the worst and the best of the Vietnamese with a raw honesty, from the petty officials to the wise old men living on catfish. You can almost taste Vietnam in his images: drunkenly revelling in the "dusty skin like yesterday's bread"; the way trees "rise above the lumpy plain, scattered like stubble on a drunkard's face"; and "her 70-year-old face, flabby, floppy like a Halloween pumpkin left out through November". You want to stick your tongue out and lick every last morsel of the page.

Hungry for Home: Leaving the Blaskets - A Journey from the Edge of Ireland by Cole Moreton (Viking, £14.99)

"This is the end of the world. The air is full of terrible wailing. A gale scalps the waves spilling foam." The opening lines of Hungry for Home have echoes of a fireside tale in the best oral tradition, but the wild night in question signalled a very real ending of one particular world. The author, a writer on this newspaper, hurls us into a dramatisation of events on Christmas Eve 1946, when the sudden illness and death of a young man on Great Blasket, a desolate island off the west coast of Ireland, proved the final catalyst for the islanders' evacuation.

Moreton goes in search of the last remaining islanders, following in the wake of one family's personal tragedy. Celebrated as the last bastion of Gaelic culture and language, the Blasket islands had come to hold a hallowed place in the Irish consciousness.

Moreton's narrative is an effortless layering of folk tales, investigative journalism, politics and history, with just enough of the "what next?" to keep you gripped. Celtic monks, Viking invasions, English massacres and bodies washed up from Spanish galleons are all woven into his present-day search.

Like a dog sniffing out a trail about to go cold - "when they died, the last traces of their world of imagination really would be gone for good" - Moreton follows the path from Ireland to America, the Land of Youth. Intent on recording the stories of the dead man's brothers, his personal quest and yearning for "home" is also visible just below the surface. "I had been attracted to Dingle in the beginning as a possible balm for the constant feeling of homesickness that I always felt, without ever knowing where home was."

Exploring the concept of home, but without dissolving into sentimentality, Moreton faces the ultimate irony head on at the end. Finding men in bright bermudas, he discovers that the very stoicism and pragmatism that enabled the islanders to survive such hardship on the Blasket islands have helped them to adapt to life in America. Although nostalgic, the Carneys or Kearneys wouldn't leave their pseudo-Ireland to return to live on the Blaskets even if it were possible. "It's beautiful to look at but scenery doesn't fill the stomach."

Hungry for Home doesn't shy away from the hard facts or romanticise the islanders' lives. But the romance of a world lost for ever is not sacrificed either.

Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten, by Riccardo Orizio (Secker & Warburg, £15.99)

As a concept, Lost White Tribes is promising. Riccardo Orizio is an Italian journalist who has stumbled upon an overlooked section of world society, the forgotten "white tribes". Taking as his focus the people who settled in various sections of the globe during colonial times but who, when the colonised nations gained independence, either had no money or desire to return to the parent countries, he sets out to track down a dying breed: hybrids with no future.

Documenting pockets of people heading towards extinction - from the Germans of Jamaica to Sri Lanka's Dutch, the Confederates in Brazil, Poles in Haiti and Basters of Namibia - Orizio turns on its head the notion that the colonists always came off best.

An anthropological report as much as a piece of travel writing, it is a worthy theme and Orizio's fascination is contagious in some parts, but tends towards the dry in others.

Discovering his first white tribe in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Burghers seemed "more exotic than all the exotica around me" but are "reduced to being a historical fossil, little more than a genetic anomaly for whom no one wants to claim paternity".

The individual stories are absorbing, but Orizio is always the journalist, placing too much emphasis on facts and figures over narrative drive for his book to be truly gripping.