Translated by Sheila Fischman
(Bloomsbury Press, 2012)
When winter comes, I find myself drawn to books with a strong authorial voice that matches my inward thoughts: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust; To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf; The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, to name just a few. Joining these is Kim Thuy’s Ru, a recently translated novel that tells the story of a young girl growing up in a fractured Saigon, eventually forced to run with her family all the way to Canada.
Ru, the title of Kim Thuy’s new novel, means lullaby in Vietnamese, the author’s native language, and in Quebec, the author’s second home, the word refers to a small stream, The double-lull of the title quickly becomes a thousand shreds of firecrackers that “coloured the ground red, like the petals of cherry blossoms, or like the blood of the two million soldiers,” as our introduction to our 10-year-old narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, is underway. We’re told it is the Year of the Monkey and, more importantly, the year of the Tet Offensive.
The story flashes backward and forward: the narrator is a child, then a mother of two; she is in Saigon, Malaysia, Quebec, but we never lose our foothold in the drama. Thuy’s prose is elegant and spare, and many of Ru’s 160 pages contain more white space than text. Her language belies the hard facts of the story: the narrator’s home is partially taken over by soldiers from the new Communist regime; her parents hide gold and diamonds amongst the children’s clothing to pay for their journey out of Vietnam; a boy runs across a rice paddy and is shot in front of our narrator and the boys mother; An’s father matter-of-factly carries cyanide pills on their rough boat ride away from their homeland should danger arise.
Despite the striking material, the author’s spare approach almost seems to lack emotion. But the narrator’s sentiments resonate in moments of horror, such as when she describes what a filmmaker might see of her family’s stay at a Malaysian refugee camp: “the beauty of the silent and spontaneous complicity between wretched people.” Thuy’s humor is another surprise, and is well placed in the drama. A description of the narrator’s father in a photograph, wearing a sweater donated by neighbors during their early years in Granby, Quebec, lifts us from the story’s inherent sadness:
Today, his broad smile in the photo from that time manages to make us forget that it was a woman’s sweater, nipped in at the waist. Sometimes its best not to know everything.
Though the story maps Thuy’s own history, her devices—the spare language and short vignettes—keep us at arm’s length. Still, her poetic language works to draw us in. It’s a world I was content to be in, one that is rich and rewarding. And, as our narrator closes, she seems to finally be at peace with her two countries “where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.”