Author: Kim Thúy
Format: Paperback, English translation
Published: January 17, 2012
My Rating on Goodreads: 5 out of 5 stars
“Ru. In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow–of tears, blood, money.” –Ru, Kim Thúy.
This is the opening line to Kim Thúy’s book summary. It’s a story of two worlds: Vietnam and Quebec. And two lives.
Ru is the winner of Canada Reads 2015. Canada Reads is battle of the books competition in which five Canadian public figures each champion a separate book in a series of debates on TV. It’s a great show and a great event!
After watching the episodes religiously, I was curious about all five of them. I first picked up Ru from my local library and finished it in no time. It’s a short, easy read because it’s organized by vignettes rather than chapters. This is a reading format I was unaccustomed to but really enjoyed because it made for an easier reading experience.
The novel is a narrative of immigration from Vietnam to Canada. Kim Thúy weaves together a story about a girl named An Tinh Nguyen, born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Although it’s not autobiographical, it feels deeply personal because Thúy herself immigrated to Canada from Vietnam in 1979, at the age of ten.
Against the backdrop of war, An and her family migrate to a crowded refugee camp in Malaysia to the wintery cold of Quebec. Ru shows the hardships and the struggles of immigrant families but it also shows the successes and triumphs. Kim Thúy recounts the culture and lifestyle of traditional Vietnam, giving the reader glimpses of An’s previous life.
I found the depictions of Vietnamese food, family life and spirituality fascinating. It was like glimpsing into another world and another time. She also illustrated the struggle and life of the poor versus the rich in Vietnam through her descriptions of street vendors, servants and young women who entertained American soldiers versus An’s own family, who lived a comfortable, luxurious life in Saigon.
But she also depicted the cultural adjustment the Nguyens had to grow though upon arriving in Quebec. For example, An recounts how one of her shy relatives became angry when his team members patted him on the head during a sports game–a gesture considered disrespectful in Vietnamese culture because the head is seen as a sacred part of the body.
Most of all though, Ru showed me another world. A world as a native Canadian I am unfamiliar with. It taught me about Vietnam and about my own country. The question for Canada Reads 2015 was: What book will break barriers?
I don’t know if it will break barriers but it certainly fostered in me a greater understanding of immigration, and the obstacles people face and overcome along the way.
These last words in the novel made me quite emotional:
“I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.” – Ru, Kim Thúy