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The Refugee Ocean

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About The Book

Two refugees find that their lives are inextricably linked—over time and distance—by the perils of history and a single haunting piece of music.

Born in Beirut in 1922, Marguerite Toutoungi lives a life of loss and sacrifice. She dreams of traveling to Europe and studying music at the Conservatoire de Paris but her family—and her society—hold her back. When she meets the son of a Cuban tobacco farmer at a formal dance, love transforms her life. Together with him, she flees across the Pacific Ocean. She’s hoping for a new beginning. Instead, she finds revolution and chaos.

Over fifty years later, Naïm Rahil is a teenage refugee from Aleppo, Syria. A former piano prodigy who struggles to thrive in America—and who has lost part of his hand in the war—he dreams of a simple, normal life.

Moving from Aleppo on the brink of civil war, to Lebanon in the late 1940s, to Havana during the Cuban Revolution, to the suburbs of Washington, DC, The Refugee Ocean grapples with what it means to be an immigrant, shows how wounds can heal, and highlights the role of music and art in the resilience of the human spirit.

Reading Group Guide

THE REFUGEE OCEAN

Pauls Toutonghi

Discussion Questions

1. How do Marguerite and Naïm’s experiences as refugees from different regions compare? How do their stories reflect the broader immigrant experience?

2. How did Marguerite’s journey differ from — or mirror — the experiences of modern-day refugees like Naïm?

3. What does music symbolize in the journeys of Naïm and Marguerite?

4. Consider the role of family and community in the lives of Marguerite and Naïm. How do these relationships shape their identities and decisions?

5. Naïm is a former piano prodigy who has lost part of his hand in the war. How does his struggle with the role of music in his life connect to the broader theme of resilience in the face of adversity?

6. Discuss the theme of revolution and chaos in Marguerite’s life during her time in Havana. How do these events shape her identity and her journey?

7. How does the author use the various settings of Aleppo, Lebanon, Havana, and Washington, D.C. to enhance the narrative and highlight the characters’ journeys?

8. The Refugee Ocean explores the concept of wounds healing over time. Discuss how the characters in the story undergo personal growth and healing as they adapt to new environments and circumstances.

9. Discuss the idea of a “new beginning” in the context of Marguerite and Naïm’s stories. What does it mean to them, and how does it evolve over the course of the story?

10. Reflect on the ending of the book. What did you think of the eventual convergence of the characters’ experiences? Did the themes explored in the novel leave a lasting impact on you as a reader?

About The Author

K.B. Dixon

Pauls Toutonghi’s parents were both refugees to the United States. He has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, an Andrew W. Mellon research fellowship, a Fulbright Grant, and a residency at Hawthornden Castle. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Outside Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Granta, Tin House, and other periodicals. He’s married to the novelist, Peyton Marshall. He lives in Oregon, where he teaches at Lewis and Clark College.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 3, 2023)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668007433

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Raves and Reviews

"Both thoughtful and seamlessly executed; a fine choice for book clubs."Library Journal

"Toutonghi’s evocative prose captures the power of music and the ongoing struggles of grief."—Booklist

"Gloriously symphonic."Shelf Awareness (starred review)

"The Refugee Ocean is one of those breathtaking and simultaneously heartbreaking stories that slides under one's skin and stays... It is a story of the power of music and its ability to bring lives and hope together and to heal wounds that threaten the soul."—The Montecito Journal

"There is a tender fearlessness that runs through The Refugee Ocean, a book as unflinching in its depiction of conflict as it is anchored to the healing power of art. Pauls Toutonghi has written such a richly imagined and emotionally complex story set where the grand sweep of history collides with the innate human desire for shelter, connection and beauty. The result is an unforgettable novel about the way the lives of the displaced can echo through decades and across oceans, the way we are, even or perhaps especially when unanchored from the places of our birth, bound to one another."—Omar El Akkad, national bestselling author of American War and What Strange Paradise

"The Refugee Ocean is an exquisite novel, as poignant and layered as the beautiful music at the story's heart. Pauls Toutonghi masterfully captures moments of humanity, connection, and joy even as the novel confronts all the hardships of war and displacement."—Eleanor Shearer, author of River Sing Me Home

"Two musicians. Two countries. Two conflicts. Two time periods. Pauls Toutonghi’s breathtaking new novel, The Refugee Ocean, presents two narratives that are equally engrossing yet so far removed from one another that one of the book’s central questions becomes how exactly Toutonghi will ever manage to weave the two storylines together. When he eventually does, it is more like he has brought together a pair of crash cymbals. The sound is so loud and so clear and so powerful it reverberates in your ears long after you’ve turned the last page."—Rachel Beanland, author of The House Is on Fire

"From its opening paragraph to its shattering last line, The Refugee Ocean had me in a thrall. Deeply humane, and written in elegant, understated prose, this is a novel with old-fashioned sweep and texture, yet it always feels burningly relevant. Pauls Toutonghi, take a bow."Tom Bissell, author of Creative Types: and Other Stories

"In this timely and beautifully written book, Pauls Toutonghi offers a riveting portrayal of the refugee experience and a testimony to the enduring nature of art. I was swept up in the lives of these characters and deeply touched by their stories. This novel is itself a lovely and humane work of art."—Alix Ohlin, author of We Want What We Want

"Like the artful music at the center of its overlapping plotlines, The Refugee Ocean is intricate, moving, and vitalizing—a powerful portrait of displaced characters seeking refuge in the unfamiliar and finding the perils and gifts of humanity that will connect them across culture and time."—Vu Tran, author of Dragonfish

"A brilliant insight into war, on every level possible. The novel is a kind of waltz -- sailing effortlessly in the ocean of refugees from broken dreams."—Muhammad Aladdin, author of The Season of Migration to Arkidea and The Secret Life of Citizen M

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