Reviewed in this essay: Ru by Kim Thúy. Random House, 2012
Ru by Kim Thúy is a deceptive book. It is a slim volume, but hardly a light read. What it lacks in pages it more than compensates for in breadth and complexity. This is a big story pared down. Thúy lays her narrative of bones and through them we glimpse shadows of the carcass removed.
The novel is based on Thúy’s own life and her turbulent transition from Vietnam to Canada as a youth. The work is told through a series of reflections and contemplations strung together to form a loose narrative that is not always linear. The protagonist of Ru begins her childhood in Saigon as part of a politically well-connected and wealthy dynasty. With the take-over of the city by communist forces, life becomes increasingly difficult and her parents decide to abandon their crumbling grandeur and chance escape.
The family flight from Vietnam takes many forms. The first being a harrowing boat trip organized by smugglers. Thúy evocatively conveys the cramped claustrophobia of the experience and the ability of the body and mind to adapt as cruel conditions become mundane.
Their escape by boat leads them to a Malaysian refugee camp; a squalid overcrowded place where flies loom and one misstep can mean plunging into a lagoon of excrement. When the family finally arrives in Quebec, their physical voyage is finished but change remains a continuous thread as a new culture and country merges with the old.
This history continues to resonate within the protagonist into adulthood. As a grown woman, she returns to Vietnam and we see how these new experiences are shaded by the past. She reflects on the different facets of motherhood, examining the complicated figure of her own mother, and also herself in that role as she confronts her son’s autism.
Thúy’s writing is lean. The sparse quality of the prose gives it, at times, a poetic feel as does the fragmented style in which the novel is told. It is the way the vignettes string together and reverberate as a whole, however, that makes the reader truly appreciate Thúy’s craftsmanship. The narrative slips effectively between the present and the past frequently leaving the reader with beautiful images as anchors, a plastic bracelet concealing diamonds or a girl with singed hair. This is a work of often-raw emotional expanse that goes down like honey.
The device of language itself here is also worth noting. Language and concepts of home intersect and separate. Reading this book as a translation into English from French adds another layer to this already multifarious mix. Growing up initially in a Vietnam still heavily influenced by French colonization, Thúy was exposed to French as a child though she did not become fluent until living in Canada. It is ironic then that the protagonist is assumed to be a foreigner when returning to her birth county. Ru is a word that crosses languages. It translates as a small stream in French and lullaby in Vietnamese. It also means a flow. Ru is a fluid novel that transports the reader through cultures and across continents, all the while focusing on the small, the subtle, the glorious and the difficult. We should all be so lucky to read about these waters.