RU by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman (Random House), 141 pages, $25 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Kim Thuy's novel stays true to its title, Ru, the Vietnamese word for "lullaby" and the French word for "stream." The book flows with images - and gently, even though those images evoke painful hardship.
Told in the first person through a series of short episodes, Ru - winner of 2011's Governor General's Award for French-language fiction - winds back and forth in time through the major periods of the life of An Tinh.
In some sections she's in 1979 Saigon in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when An's just a girl and her bourgeois family is clinging to their privilege in their palatial quarters. Another is set in a crammed Malaysian refugee camp, while others depict An's harrowing boat journey to Quebec and her return visit to Vietnam as an adult. As the narrative unfolds - or, rather, flashes by - An's cousins, uncles, her unbearably kind Canadian neighbours and others who have transformed her life play their parts.
Ru's prose is crystalline - credit in part goes to translator Sheila Fischman - and the detail astonishing. A Communist soldier taking over the family home in Vietnam has never seen a brassiere; he thinks it's a cloth coffee filter. Diamonds are carefully sewn into the children's clothing before the family's escape from Saigon.
The emotional swirl is often devastating. Trauma has so toughened An's mother that she gives almost no affection to her daughter, and her no-good-can-come-of-anything world view has paralyzed An to the point that she has trouble speaking. The adult An has trouble connecting romantically because she fears upheaval and dreads abandonment, which she imagines is inevitable.
Doubtless, readers will question whether this is fiction, memoir or creative non-fiction. But regardless of what you call it, Ru is a clear-eyed, unflinching work, relentless yet in its pristine poetic language strangely tender.
And absolutely beautiful.
Thúy reads at Harbourfront's Brigantine Room on Wednesday (February 29). See listing.
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