Ru by Kim Thúy

Stripped, stark, unapologetic.

Synopsis of Ru by Kim Thuy: Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow--of tears, blood, money. Kim Thúy's Ru is literature at its most crystalline: the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful water.

In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream. As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two sons, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy's autism.

Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a book that celebrates life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy.

My two cents

In short snapshots, we piece together the life of Ru: living a wealthy life in Saigon, struggling to survive in an overcrowded and squalid Malaysian refugee camp, transplanted in the strange world of Quebec. It is a story of hope and possibility, of remaking and rebuilding oneself . An immigrant story that is short, non-verbose, honest and hard hitting.

I am guilty of letting this review languish in my drafts as I don't quite know how to verbalize how this resonated with my own immigrant experience. While I never faced the extreme conditions that Ru did, I can definitely relate to the feelings of displacement, alienation, and the need to be "can do" in a new culture and environment. How else can one rebuild their life? How else can one move on? She her retrospective so succinctly:
"...after only thirty years I already recognize our old selves only through fragments, through scars, through glimmers of light."
In very stark stripped, even poetic writing, Thúy shares a fictionalized version of her true-to-life story through the character of Ru. Much of what is recounted is quite horrific -- the horrors of war and what one must do to survive, the squalid conditions that had to be endured, the life left behind, and the uncertainty of a new life in a foreign county. But it is surprisingly unsentimental, a recounting of what is, without passing judgement on what can be labelled as unethical or immoral.

I was at times struggling to make sense of the series of events in Ru's life -- she jumps around from present to past and back again, from country to country, that it constantly left me confused. However, I think while this is an uh-oh for a time, the fluid structure of these streams of consciousness grew on me. That's how memories are -- there doesn't need to a structure to it, they strike at the most innocuous times. However I can see this being a problem are for those who are more inclined to a structured reading experience.

I wonder why Thúy decided to make this a fictional version of her life as I would've welcomed a memoir in this format too. I guess she has taken some artistic liberties or maybe wanted to protect the identities of certain people. Your guess is as good as mine.

Verdict: AVietnamese immigrant's life story told in poetic snapshots. A story that I will keep close to me to remind myself that I too had a different life and have a world of possibility in this new life I've chosen. This makes my favourites list for this year!

I recommend it to those who like immigrant stories, experimental books, and minimalist writing.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall