Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)
Bloomsbury USA, November 2012
Nguyễn An Tinh was born into a wealthy Saigon family during the Tet Offensive, “when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.” She has a beautiful mansion, servants, and is mostly sheltered from the war that has enveloped Vietnam. But her mother, prepared for potential upheaval, still makes Tinh learn how to clean sprouted beans and how to wash tiles.
“She was right to do so,” Tinh narrates, “because very soon we no longer had a floor beneath our feet.”Along with others who could afford the passage, Tinh’s family evacuates the country by boat, only to be waylaid at a Malaysian refugee camp filled with maggots “in the hundreds of thousands, as if summoned by a messiah.” Eventually, the family is allowed passage into Canada.
Much of Ru, Kim Thúy’s first novel, is autobiographical. An émigré from Vietnam who now lives in Montreal, Thúy writes in French, translated here by Sheila Fischman. Composed of short, dreamlike vignettes—each verges on a prose poem—the novel is Thúy’s life story, which unfolds with past and present battling line by line. Throughout, Thúy’s eye for detail is keen: a woman who perishes after she falls into her family’s septic tank is “surrounded by smooth-skinned, yellow-fleshed bullheads, without scales, without memory.”
Later, in Canada, Tinh is so quiet her best friend thinks she is a deaf mute. Tinh eventually builds a life, holds a variety of jobs, and starts a family. She writes to make sense of her past. But when she has a son with autism, Tinh faces a transmogrified version of her own life’s struggles. Henri is “a prisoner in his own world” and is one of the children “we must love from a distance…because every one of their senses would be assaulted by the odor of our skin, by the intensity of our voices, the texture of our hair, the throbbing of our hearts.” Tragically, he “can pronounce poire but not maman.” Tinh’s and Henri’s silence form quite the contrast with the cacophony of Vietnam’s firecrackers and machine guns.
In French, “ru” is an anachronistic term for a brook or stream; in Vietnamese, it’s a kind of lullaby. And appropriately, as Thúy’s novel flows rapidly, vignette by vignette, it does often sing—both for her and for us.