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.)