When Kim Thúy's Ru was published in its original French language it won the Governor General's Award for French language fiction at the 2010 Governor General's Awards. Now the English edition, translated by the Canadian translator Sheila Fischman, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.
A refugee's tale
Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, "when the long chain of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns".
The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir (Thúy was also born in 1968 and came to Canada with her family as a refugee), but it doesn't follow the normal conventions, particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order. This means her narrative continually switches from the present — where she is a mother of an autistic son — to the past — the privileged life she led in Vietnam, the stint in a Malaysian Red Cross camp, a treacherous journey across the ocean — then back again.
But by recording her personal history and her journey, both physical and metaphorical, in this way, we are able to see the shape of her life and how 30 years ago it was dramatically changed by circumstances beyond her control. At times it is distressing, as this passage about the narrator's journey across the Gulf of Siam on a tiny refugee boat reveals:
The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water's depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fears of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby's head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.
At other times, it is almost joyous — for instance, there's a palpable sense of relief when the family arrives in Canada, where people are kind and helpful, and where their sponsors, a family of volunteers, help them to furnish their home in Quebec — even if, with hindsight, our narrator realises that they were buying inferior goods and that their father was given a red cowl-necked sweater that he wore proudly every day not knowing it was a "woman's sweater, nipped in at the waist".
Lacks emotional connection
Much of the story revolves around the theme of "the other", of trying to fit in to a new life and a new country. It doesn't help that our narrator is painfully shy — on several occasions she describes herself as "deaf and mute" or as a "shadow" — and that she struggles at school, "where there was a glaring gap between my grades and the results of my IQ tests, which bordered on deficient".
But it is also about keeping history alive, the kind of history "that will never be taught in any school" — this is not so much about the Vietnam War but about its disturbing and heartbreaking effects on the civilians who had to flee for their lives and start all over again (if they were lucky) on foreign soil.
That said, there's something about Thúy's overly descriptive prose style that makes it hard to make an emotional connection with the narrator. I finished this book feeling strangely unmoved by it and yet I'd just read about the worst kind of pain and grief that a fellow human being could experience. (I felt exactly the same way when I read Madeleine Thien's Dogs at the Perimeter, another Canadian novel, this time about a Cambodian refugee, earlier this year.)
Yet that is not to dismiss Ru — it's already a massive bestseller across the globe and was the BBC's Book at Bedtime in June — so there's undoubtedly a vast audience to whom it greatly appeals. Sadly, I guess I wasn't one of them...