Born to a wealthy family during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese communists launched their surprise attacks on the South during the Lunar New Year festivities, mingling machine gun fire with firecrackers, Kim Thuy has drawn on her own experiences to produce this fictionalised memoir. Half the family is home partitioned off with a brick wall to be taken over by communist soldiers who spy on them continuously. Their wealth in the form of diamonds inserted in the pink plastic of dental prosthetics, the narrator’s family joins the flood of boat people, passing via a muddy Malaysian camp to Canada which has extended a generous welcome to many Vietnamese refugees. Years later, as a naturalised Canadian, she is able to revisit her country of origin to reevaluate it from a westernised perspective.
At first, certain aspects of the evidently original and distinctive style irritated me. I felt somewhat cheated by the mainly one page chapters, often more than fifty per cent white space. The way they flitted back and forth in time made it hard to keep characters in mind and grasp the order of events. It is difficult to refer back to points quickly unless one is using a Kindle! I found it easier to read once I had accepted the novel as a series of anecdotes, often poetic, with a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, the white space encouraging a pause for reflection, the underlying aim being to mirror how memory works in fragmented, jumbled recollections.
“Ru”, a French word which can mean “Flow”, seems a more apt title than “Ru” in the sense of “Lullaby”, many memories being quite brutal or harrowing, mixed with beauty, humour or banality. This may render them all the more shocking, in seeming unreal while manifestly true. For instance, Mr. An, met in Canada, is still traumatised by the Russian roulette played by the Communist soldiers, causing him to observe for the first time the varied shades of blue in the sky he thought he was seeing for the last time. The narrator’s objectivity in describing such things is a way of coping with suffering and loss. Yet is it also at the price of making the reader feel too disengaged as well?
Despite their brevity, the paragraphs need to be read slowly, with concentration, because they are so full of images which evoke yet further ones. Each reader will draw something different from the myriad of impressions. Perhaps because they give insights into a different culture, I found the passages on Vietnam the most striking and moving – the nostalgic image of a past tradition, in which old ladies in a boat on a small lake place tea leaves in lotus flowers for them to absorb their scent during the night.
Then there is Aunt Five (the Vietnamese name their family members by number), a spinster who has dedicated her life to her parents. Rewarded after their death by being driven out of the house, she takes refuge in a hut near a Buddhist temple, virtually her sole possession being the four bowls in which she gave her old father his daily rice. These blue and white bowls with silver rims, partly translucent when held up to the sunlight, are a symbol of a lost way of life.
There is subtlety in the anecdote of the refugee boys machining clothes in a Quebec garage after school to earn some pocket money, who recall the dark period in Vietnam when they were abused by men in for the price of a bowl of soup. Yet their ability to maintain a kind of innocence, divorced from the sordid deeds of adults, and become balanced young men, Canadian engineers, is an affirmation of human resilience.
Kim Thuy evokes our empathy with the refugees, and a sense of how having been uprooted from one culture, they inevitably retain a nostalgia for certain aspects of it, some fated to occupy a kind of limbo, unable to shed a sense of disconnection from the host country, no matter how well they appear to have integrated into it: “one horizon always conceals another…… one advances through life in the footsteps of those who have gone before, in a kind of waking dream”.