Ru, by Kim Thúy

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Translated by Sheila Fischman

The original French version of Ru has already garnered an impressive pack of prizes — Canada’s Governor-General’s award for French-language fiction and significant awards in both France and Italy. Foreign rights have been sold to 15 countries, so the non-French reading world is about to be introduced to this book, a best-seller in Quebec since its publication there in 2009.

The jacket cover accurately describes Ru as “a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland” — indeed, “ru” is Vietnamese for “lullaby” but one of its meanings in French (a flow or outpouring) is equally appropriate. The near novella (my version is only 141 pages and many of the sections in it are less than half a page) is a fictional memoir — Kim Thúy was born in Vietnam and the book reflects her experiences as a refugee, immigrant child in Quebec, seamstress, interpreter, lawyer and restaurant owner in a cascade of stream-of-consciousness past experiences in her still-young, but now adult, life.

The opening offers a fair portrait of what is to come:

I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of the machine guns.

I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered through the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

We learn within a few pages that the narrator is now an adult “exile”, a mother of two. Her family was on the wrong side when the North-South Vietnamese conflict ended, escaped when she was 10 as part of the “boat people” phenomenon and ended up in Quebec. The memories of how that global journey came to pass are relevant in creating the context of her life:

As a child, I thought that war and peace were opposites. Yet I lived in peace when Vietnam was in flames and I didn’t experience war until Vietnam had laid down its weapons. I believe that war and peace are actually friends, who mock us. They treat us like enemies when it suits them, with no concern for the definition or the role we give them.

An illustration from her own family history:

My mother waged her first battles later, without sorrow. She went to work for the first time at the age of thirty-four, first as a cleaning lady, then at jobs in plants, factories, restaurants. Before, in the life that she had lost, she was the eldest daughter of her prefect father. All she did was settle arguments between the French-food chef and the Vietnamese-food chef in the family courtyard. Or she assumed the role of judge in the secret love affairs between maids and menservants.

Ten years is not enough time for a child’s character to become fully-formed. Life in a Malaysian refugee camp (when the boat reaches shore at a beach next door to a Club Med a storm fortunately breaks it apart — it cannot be turned back to sea) adds another traumatic set of life-learning experiences. That is quickly followed by a completely different, but equally confusing, set in Quebec:

The town of Granby was the warm belly that sheltered us during our first year in Canada. The locals cosseted us one by one. The pupils in my grade school lined up to invite us home for lunch so that each of our noon hours was reserved by a family. And every time, we went back to school with nearly empty stomachs because we didn’t know how to use a fork to eat rice that wasn’t sticky. We didn’t know how to tell them that this food was strange to us, that they really didn’t have to go to every grocery store in search of the last box of Minute Rice. We could neither talk to nor understand them. But that wasn’t the main thing. There was generosity and gratitude in every grain of the rice left on our plates. To this day I still wonder whether words might have tainted those moments of grace.

I hope those quotes adequately illustrate the central theme of Ru: What made me what I am? So much seems to be missing.

Those childhood learning experiences, spread globally both in geography and emotion, had absolutely nothing in common. For the adults involved, survival and adaptation to a series of new, immediate realities always was the pressing necessity — for the children, including the narrator, each was not only “new” in a threatening sense, it was also incomplete. The missing aspects of the memories are as much a part of arriving at maturity as the concrete ones are.

The result is an adult who is as perplexed by what was not there as she is aware of the vast array of different circumstances that did define her life. As the book goes on, more and more of the narrative is devoted to more recent memories of her attempts to fill in those gaps — but even when she returns to Vietnam as an adult she discovers that while she may indeed by a modern example of the “world” citizen, there is no place where she feels “at home”.

I can fully understand why Thúy’s book has seen so much success and confidently predict the translation will see even more. It would take a very callous reader not to enrol in the empathy that the book demands. Unfortunately for me, however, that empathy was not enough — as much as I wanted to engage with the narrator and her story, there was too much surface and not enough depth. Yes, in many ways that is the result that Thúy is trying to convey and she succeeds; I found it powerfully descriptive, but curiously remote, given the personal drama that is involved at each stage.

Don’t take that critical assessment as a rejection of the work. I had much the same response to Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Helen Garner’s The Spare Room and those three novels all have passionate advocates (and outstanding sales). Any novel that relies so much on empathy also risks landing as sentimentality with some readers — that’s what happened with me with all four of these books. I will be the first to acknowledge that many other readers will find that their response tilts towards a much more meaningful and sympathetic resolution.

(A special note for Canadian visitors here: Random House Canada’s hardcover version of this book is one of the most appealing physical books that I have had the pleasure to hold in a long time — an evocative, embossed dust cover; gorgeous deckled edges to the pages; and perfect, diary-like dimensions. Even if you don’t intend to buy it, check it out if you see it in a bookstore — this is what a proper book is meant to look and feel like.)

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12 Responses to “Ru, by Kim Thúy”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    *chuckle* Alas, I have very sensitive antennae for sentimentality – which twitched most painfully indeed for Room and The Spare Room – so while I assume that the sentiment in this one is not exploitative, it doesn’t sound like a book for me.
    Cheers
    Lisa

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: You make a good point — the sentiments in the book are anything but exploitative, they are very real and I expect more autobiographical than fictional. On the other hand, since it is cast as a novel, I expected more and did not find it. I suspect you would have the same issues with Ru that you had with Room and The Spare Room — I certainly did.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The quotes seem a bit overblown to be honest.

    ” I believe that war and peace are actually friends, who mock us. They treat us like enemies when it suits them, with no concern for the definition or the role we give them.” – who talks like that outside novels? It’s so very writerly, it has a kind of earnest quality, declaring its own importance. Despite that, it doesn’t really mean anything. It just seems to.

    Also, everything seems spelled out already – “There was generosity and gratitude in every grain of the rice left on our plates.” What’s left for me as a reader to do?

    Generally I thought the language felt artificial, but not studiedly artificial. More like an idea of what good writing should be, which takes me back to that rather earnest tone.

    When this review popped up in my inbox my first thought was that you had used more quotes than you generally do, and I wondered why. Having read the review in full I can see why, and you were right to do so, but while I’ve often read reviews where the quotes left me indifferent (useful, but not themselves dispositive) here the quotes themselves tell me quite clearly that this isn’t a book I want to read.

    Still, not every author can reach every reader. It sounds like it’s having every success and I don’t begrudge that. It feels though like the sort of book I would expect to win prizes, if cliches about literary prizes were truer than they are.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I did use more quotes than I usually do because I found the tone/style of the voice to be an important characteristic of the book and wanted to show that without just stating it. Frankly, I think that probably should be true of any volume that is styled as a memory novel.

    I did not find that voice very convincing either — too flat and artificial for me. On the other hand, from the limited reviews that I have read (the English language version was only released yesterday), the voice (and in particular its muted emotion) has been cited as a strength. I’d say that is the start of showing diverging tastes.

    I am not a fan of memoirs so a work of memoir fiction has to be pretty special for me to like it (The Sense of an Ending is a good example). Obviously, there is a very large audience that loves memoirs (and I presume is more positively inclined to memoir fiction than I am) — I am quite sure they are going to take to this book much more than I did.

  5. Kinga Says:

    The writing seems a bit contrived and pretentious but I wouldn’t mind reading it. It is after all very short anyway.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kinga: I suspect that those who weigh quality of prose will find the book wanting — there is a cool formality to it that almost imposes a distance. For some, I suspect that will discourage an emotional engagement with the story (in some ways, it did for me). For others, my guess is that it will serve to heighten their response.

  7. Shelley Says:

    Ru, lullaby, flow: what a lovely word.

    I wonder if it is, also, meant to evoke “rue”?

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: Thuy does explain the two meanings in a short prologue, so I think that was the limit of her intended reference. Using the English meaning of “rue” would, however, be consistent with the story.

  9. Ava Homa Says:

    Kevin,

    When you talk of “depth” in a book, what exactly do you mean?

    Room criticized modern American media (the TV interview was my only favorite scene of the book) but I did not see enough material in the book to want to read it again.

    The Sense of an Ending, on the other hand, was mind blowing. It made me question concepts I had taken for granted: maturity, responsibility,…

    Is that what you look for in a book, too? I mean, are we on the same page? In that case, do most North American books disappoint you? (Books like This Cake is for the Party that got all the buzz and wanted me to throw up!)

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ava: I would say we are close to being on the same page when looking at “depth” in a book. While I certainly rate character development highly, I like to see it complemented with a context that pays attention to the world around the characters.

    Certainly there is a lot of “world” around the narrator in Ru, but the author uses that mainly to explore the impact that it has on the narrator (a thinly-veiled version of herself). I fully acknowledge that that approach appeals to many (that would be where my comparisons with Room and The Spare Room come into play) — I would like to see more (which is where I would place The Sense of an Ending).

    I don’t think I would see either North American or UK fiction trending in one direction or the other — both geographical locales have a lot of examples of both. I would speculate that the book club phenomenon (which tends to be more of a North American reading venue) means that the introspective character novel probably ends up attracting somewhat more attention (and sales) here.

  11. BuriedInPrint Says:

    It sounds like we’ve had similar responses to this one on the Giller shortlist; I wondered if it was just my reading mood — because a couple of reading friends absolutely loved it — so I waited a couple of weeks and started again, but I still feel much the same way. (Well, maybe I need to wait more than a couple of weeks: there’s an argument there, I’m sure.) There are some beautiful passages, and I my response, like yours, contains a lot of quotations!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I do think that readers who pay more attention to the details of prose and subtleties of language end up liking Ru more than I (or you) did. As I tried to indicate in my review, I think this one also suffered for me because it raised so many comparisons with other books that I have read — and did not fare well as a result of them.

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