The story of the little girl who was swallowed up by the sea after she’d lost her footing while walking along the edge spread through the foul-smelling belly of the boat like an anesthetic or laughing gas, transforming the single bulb into a polar and the biscuits soaked in motor oil into butter cookies. The taste of oil in our throats, on our tongues, in our heads sent us to sleep to the rhythm of the lullaby sung by the woman beside me.
Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru, is direct and graceful. It’s an immigrant story told in memories, snapshots, vignettes which capture the narrator’s journey from Saigon to Malaysian refugee camp to Canada. Nguyen An Tinh is a girl born during the Tet offensive into a bourgeois family but soon finds her family possessions ravaged and taken by the Communist soldiers who invade their home. Able to find finances to buy their escape, the spend a horrific journey on a filthy, crowded ship that lands in Malaysia. Eventually, Nguyen’s family settle in Quebec.
Nguyen is not a romantic, sentimental girl. Her voice is detached, even though compassionate, and infused with a futile longing to return to Vietnam. This detachment of Thúy’s is powerful because it dismisses any hint of the mawkish, similar to the voice in Joan Didion’s past two memoirs. Although Ru is a novel based on Thúy’s life, it reads like a memoir in fragments – diving in and out of time and emotion with the only association being that these vignettes are the impressionistic memories of one person.
There is a sorrow in Nguyen’s voice, something inherent and never exploited, only witnessed by an unflinching eye:
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.
Truth in fiction is always autobiographical in nature. It is the writer’s job to let the reader see that truth through the character. When a novel is largely based on autobiographical experiences, it is difficult write about those experiences without being influenced by the writer’s own emotions regarding those experiences. Thùy conveys painful with an elegance of a much older writer. The conflict of an immigrant running to escape brutality, searching for a new home, but never attaining a sense of belonging is at the core of Ru. This becomes a detachment that inhabits the narrative, one that leaves the reader feeling untethered. These are memories of a woman we can admire, have compassion for, but ultimately, don’t ever feel connected to Nguyen because we are not the chance to, which Thúy even reveals in an unapologetic passage:
I love men in the same way, without wanting them to be mine. That way, I am one among others, without a role to play, without existing. I don’t need their presence because I don’t miss those who are absent. They’re always replaced or replaceable. If they’re not, my feelings for them are. For that reason, I prefer married men, their hands dressed in gold rings. I like those hands on my body, on my breasts. I like them because, despite the mixture of odours, despite the dampness of their skin on mine, despite the occasional euphoria, those ring fingers with their histories keep me remote, aloof, in the shadows.
The reader ends up with a similar feeling, as if an observer kept in the shadows dazzled with stoic prose. With this, the reader wants more from the writer because the memories are fleeting. In fiction, the story and voice need to be strong enough to ground us, give refuge in a narrative structure. Ru is a lovely read and a quick read. It is not cloying or a melodramatic epic of the immigrant experience. Yet, Ru it is too ephemeral and reads like a diary of a storied soul we would like to know.
Ru by Kim Thúy
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Vintage Canada ISBN: 9780307359711