Kim Thúy • Ru

Some books are perfect for reading in a single sitting. Ru by Kim Thúy is one of those.

It’s short enough, for one thing. More to the point, though, its circuitous plotting and dense imagery mean that you must immerse yourself in the book. And you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, occasionally harrowing, often enlightening journey.

So the next time you’re facing a rainy weekend, or if you just want to read a whole book in one go, consider Ru. The translation is very readable.

Kim Thúy, Ru, trans. Sheila Fischman. 2009 novella about a Vietnamese refugee who settles in Quebec. Warmly recommended for a rainy day.

 Charles-François Daubigny • Landscape with a Sunlit Stream

Charles-François Daubigny • Landscape with a Sunlit Stream

Ru is a semi-autobiographical novella told in short chapters, usually less than a page in length. Many of the chapters are only a single paragraph, and the publisher has not justified the right margin. The appearance is thus of a book of prose poetry.

The plotting is also unusual for a novel. It does not have a unified plot beyond the fact that it is the narrator’s story. It’s told in the first person. The narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, is searching for understanding, and the novel follows that search.  (Sorry for the lack of diacritical marks—the limitations of this font.) Memories, characters, and incidents are raised, moved on from, and returned to in the rhythm of the search.

Rhythm is key. Thúy builds narrative propulsion by having each chapter take up the subject of its predecessor. On page 44 she talks about how her family used their Chinese ancestry to escape Vietnamese police. The next chapter expands on that ancestry: her maternal great-grandfather was Chinese, and her family got split between children who chose to be Vietnamese vs Chinese. The next chapter is about her Uncle Chung or Uncle Two, “because it is a South Vietnamese tradition to replace the names of brothers and sisters with their birth order,” who, as a politician, acted as a bridge between the Chinese and Vietnamese. The next chapter is about Uncle Two’s daughter. And so on.

You begin with her birth during war, during collapse. You end with a mature sense of her place, though it is perhaps more a questioning outline of where her place may be than a definitive statement of what her place is. Thúy knows better than to be black and white about such things.

As for me, it is true all the way to the possibility of this book, to the moment when my words glide across the curve of your lips, to the sheets of white paper that put up with my trail, or rather the trail of those who have walked before me, for me. I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: 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.

(The word ru means lullaby in Vietnamese and is an archaic word for a small stream in French, a symbol of her two identities. The novel is originally French.)

The rhythm of short chapters allows Thúy to examine the hardships her narrator has experienced and what the narrator’s place is in the story of Vietnam and of Canada from multiple angles.

The discipline of proceeding by picking up in a new chapter the same topic as the previous one forces Thúy to have at least two takes on every subject. This could feel artificial, limiting, or repetitive, but Thúy’s creativity and imagination make it feel exciting and expansive. It works like memory works, with a bracelet jogging a memory of a friend, which leads to a memory of her childhood timidity and jealousy, which forces a different view on her son’s autism, which reminds her of her parent’s awkward integration into Canadian culture.

I have not mentioned much about the actual content of the book yet. Roughly speaking, it’s the story of an upper-class Vietnamese family who, because of war, were forced to flee, eventually settling in Quebec. The narrator fled as a child, leaving her between worlds. In Montreal, she works and builds a family; one of her sons has autism. She recalls the hardships she faced as a refugee and as an immigrant, while recognizing the privileges she had in her country.

She analyzes the tensions that arise because of different customs, not just Canadian and Vietnamese, but also northern and southern Vietnamese, pre-war and post-war Vietnamese, wealthy and poor.

Apparently it’s largely autobiographical, but, as with Personne by Gwenaëlle Aubry, I can’t comment on this aspect, because I know nothing. I don’t call Ru an autofiction like Personne because Thúy develops a fictional character, Nguyen An Tinh, rather than using herself as a character.

The events, images, customs, and characters are specific and finely drawn, like so many memories you can’t avoid thinking about. Even though the subject matter is frequently heavy, it’s a real joy to immerse yourself in Thúy’s stream of linked images.