Book review: RU by Kim Thuy

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KIM Thuy is Vietnamese and writes in French. Her family belonged to the Saigon upper-bourgeoisie who had done well when Indo-China was part of the French empire.


BY Kim Thuy

The Clerkenwell Press, 153pp, £8.99

Her grandfather was a Prefect and other members of the family were active in politics. When the Americans abandoned South Vietnam and the Communist Viet Cong took over, they were, like other bourgeois families, humiliated and dispossessed, and compelled to undergo “re-education”. Eventually some escaped, part of the “boat-people” exodus. Kim Thuy, a child at the time, spent time in the harsh conditions of a refugee camp in Malaysia, before her parents secured entry to Canada. They first did menial work, but eventually, by industry and intelligence, prospered. Kim Thuy herself has worked as seamstress, interpreter, lawyer and restaurateur. She returned to Vietnam for some years, working in Hanoi for a UN agency. She is married, and has two sons, one of whom is autistic. She writes in French and this book has been elegantly translated by Sheila Fischman.

The title is explained in a prefatory note: “In French ‘ru’ means a small stream, and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ‘ru’ means a lullaby, to lull.” The double meaning is apt. There are tears, blood and money here. The river of time flows through the text, and, despite the horrors that are recounted, the final effect is soothing, because the author has come to terms with experience.

The cover says Ru, a novel, and so one must accept that this is how the author wants the book to be read. You are not on oath when you write fiction. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid thinking that it is also a memoir, and one that is only lightly fictionalised. This impression may be mistaken. If so, then, that is testimony to the authority with which she writes. One has the impression that nothing has been made up, though the past may have been re-arranged for artistic purposes. Memory has been distilled and is illuminated by the creative imagination.

The book is written in short, self-contained passages, some of which may be called prose poems. Others are anecdotal, and the stories relating to Kim Thuy’s extended family are tender and sometimes comic. Uncle Two “was a king to his children. He maintained the royal status until his death, even though he never signed a note for the teacher, read a report card, or washed his children’s dirty hands”.

Kim Thuy does not shrink from the horrors of her country’s history. Yet the pervasive note of the book is gratitude. “During our first nights as refugees in Malaysia, we slept right in the red earth, without a floor. The Red Cross had built refugee camps in the countries adjoining Vietnam to receive the boat people – those who had survived the sea journey. The others, those who’d gone down during the crossing, had no names. They died anonymously. We were among those who had been lucky enough to wash up on dry land. We felt blessed to be among the two thousand refugees in a camp that was intended to hold two hundred.” The restraint of that last sentence says it all.

Some passages are startling. Why did some American soldiers in Vietnam sleep with blocks of ice under their beds? “They needed to cool down after weeks of sweating with fear in the Vietnamese jungle … They needed that coolness so that they could stop suspecting, for a moment, that a grenade was hidden in the hands of every child who touched the hair on their arms. They needed that cold … to drive away the cries of their comrades with mutilated bodies.”

Almost every one of the short passages which make up the book has sentences worth quoting. Some are distressing, evidence of the cruelty and folly of mankind enflamed by politics. Some are lyrical, evocations of moments of beauty and tenderness in the author’s life. Some are wise: for example, when she remembers students in her Canadian high school who “complained about the compulsory history classes. Young as we were, we didn’t realise that the course was a privilege only countries at peace can afford.” Elsewhere people are “too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival … ”

In short, this book, written with lucidity and economy, invites you to feel and to think. The format works well. Each of the passages, none more than a couple of pages, invites you to take time to reflect. It is a considerable achievement. In Canada it won the Governor-General’s Award for French Fiction. Here it deserves to win what authors may value more highly than prizes: a host of readers.