This is a short, poignant, beautifully sculpted account of a
girl's transition from a palatial home in Saigon to a new home in Quebec.In 1979 and 1980, our newspapers were full of
the tragedy of the Vietnamese "boat people," and Canada admitted
50,000 of these refugees.They were
sponsored by individuals, church and community groups across Canada.Because they spoke French, many were welcomed
into Quebec communities.This is the
story told by a participant, a young girl whose family settled in Granby,
Thuy's story is largely autobiographical.
There are multiple settings, maybe too many: Saigon during the Vietnam War, the escape by boat to Malaysia and the refugee camps, life in Granby, a return trip to Saigon long after the war, and life as an adult in Montreal with an autistic son.
A picture of Thuy's life is revealed through trenchant
allusions and episodes.There is no
attempt to be chronological; the connections are interior but the cumulative
effect is a picture of the range of emotions and experiences of a family
snatched up in events that were larger than they were.
The narration is completely non-chronological.One chapter starts with mentally handicapped
Aunt Seven in Saigon before the war, progresses through a reminiscence of
street vendors, then flashes to a visit to Hanoi with a friend after the war, moves
forward to Granby and the adaptation to Canadian food (breakfast is never soup)
and ends in the present with the statement that she rarely eats breakfast now
that she is a Canadian.This stylistic device
allows the author to write a personal account with connections that follow
themes and memory triggers.She tells
her own story and creates an amalgam of the events which shaped her life.
Although the events are harrowing, there is no melodrama.Thuy's prose is disengaged and rather than a plea for pity, this is a celebration of the human ability to endure.
The style is spare and allusive.One description or episode, recounted in
detail, is illustrative of many others. The difference between North and South
Vietnam is shown through a comparison of language differences.North Vietnam had no words for coca cola, spies,
rebels, Communist sympathizers and illegitimate babies whose fathers were
American GIs.The extent of adaptation
required of these transplanted Asians is epitomized in the discovery of the necessity
for winter and summer clothes.The gap
between rich and poor in Vietnam is illustrated by the Communist inspectors who
thought that ladies' brassieres were coffee filters.The Europeanization of Vietnam's rich
families is embodied by Thuy's grandfather who ate only butter imported from
For all the skillfully selected episodes which illustrate a
time or place, I found the characters elusive.There are allusions to Thuy's difficult relationship to her mother, the
practical family organizer who neglected her daughter's emotional needs, and
who cast off her past like a skin and rediscovered herself through dance at age
55.But I was never sure whether Thuy
understood her mother or resented her.As an adult in Canada, Thuy became the mother
of an autistic child. This challenge is
also incorporated into her tale, a struggle that I think is part of another
There are many, many themes, a lifetime of experiences and
observations in this one small book: class structure in Vietnam, transitioning
in society, the validity of the American Dream, differences and qualities of
parenting styles, life in a vanquished country, life in refugee camps.It is a rich book, with many ideas and
viewpoints to consider, maybe too many.But all the ideas are complex and thoughtful and connect us with one of
the many cultures that are changing our Canadian society.
When first released in French in 2010, Ru won the
Governor-General's Award for Fiction.Its
translation by Sheila Fischman, Canada's leading English-French translator, is
a testament to its quality.
I am a life-long reader with a short memory. I have bookcases of books whose plots and characters are hazy or blotted out from my mind. So for several years, I have hand-written a short review of every book that I read, and kept it in a folder. Usually this was done in bed, late at night just after finishing a book. Lately, I have been writing my reviews in a Word document.
Sometimes I send one of my scribbles to the members of my book group, and they seem to enjoy them. So now I have decided to share them with you. Please remember the purpose of my reviews, which is to remind myself of the books I have read, their plots, characters, and whether or not I liked them. It's my reading record and my response to what I read.
I'd love to hear your response too. E*