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review: fiction

Author Kim Thuy at her home in Longueuil, Que., on Feb. 2, 2012.

Born in Saigon, Montreal writer Kim Thúy came to Canada as a child of war in 1979. This rendering of a Vietnamese story much like her own won the French-language Governor-General's Award (2010), among other fiction prizes, and has nailed foreign rights in 15 countries. Ru comes to us in English from celebrated translator Sheila Fischman.

Launching the tale is a note on the meaning of ru. In French, it denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or almost anything else. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby.

Clashing armies, societal upheaval, mass killing, desperate escape – and lullabies? I confess I was wary of finding something gauzily poetical: a romance-of-war novel. I was wrong. Our narrator, An Tinh, comes in a spare, almost uninflected voice, neither stark nor embellished, unspooling a retrospective story of a childhood turned nightmare and the beginnings of a new life in Canada.

Through the first years of war, An Tinh and her family managed to hang onto a bourgeois Saigon life, with servants and live-in French and Vietnamese chefs. Then the communist inspectors came, backed by troops. The Nguyen family lost everything but a few diamonds sewn into shirt collars and a small cache of gold, which bought their escape. They boarded a decrepit boat with hundreds of others, their destination a squalid Malaysian refugee camp.

Thúy eschews modes of reminiscence and emotion in favour of recall and assessment. The prose is softly relentless. Even the crush and fear and stench of the dark boat hold is expressed in a flow of waves – the syntactical equivalent of ocean swells. The effect is to reilluminate a familiar dichotomy that we all know and often deny: Peace and war, joy and misery, are as unstoppable and eternal as the ebb and flow of tides. Thúy's sentences feel spontaneous and untweaked. (Fischman's translation shows its sensitivity here.) To call the writing lyrical, emphasizing authorial spin, would in fact be misleading.

An Tinh's mother has no truck with sorrow. She repeats to her daughter and sons a proverb recited in Vietnamese grade schools: "Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat." In their struggle to adapt to immigrant lives in Quebec, this tough-love stance leads her to discount her children's vulnerability. An Tinh is so paralyzed by fear of the new that she can go days without the power of speech, which her frustrated mother tries to correct by sending her out on solo grocery errands doomed to failure. Her father, by contrast, has the gift of satisfaction, savouring the present moment as if it were "the best and only time, with no comparisons, no measurements."

Their new neighbours inundate the Nguyen family with bewildering kindnesses: boxes of Minute Rice, meal invitations (eggs with maple syrup!), trips to the zoo and much-needed items such as warm clothes. Still, Canada remains never more than a partial escape. On a school camping trip, flies around the toilets raise sharp memories of maggot-infested latrine pits in the refugee camp. An Tinh's description of balancing on boards over the seething sea of brown is as vivid as it is ghastly.

In just 140 pages, the novel touches on an impressive range of culture notes and historical incident, woven through the family's decades-long arc of prosperity, suffering and piecemeal recovery. In recurring flashes, we return to Hanoi with An Tinh as an adult. All told, we meet, in quickly passing anecdotes, a great array of aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, grandparents, fellow escapees, lovers, Vietnamese soldiers and others. Terrible events, such as the shooting of a young boy by soldiers, have an impact ultimately made stronger by the disengagement of Thúy's prose. Harrowing is the last thing this novel is. You are made to watch, without the luxury of being either thrilled or inured.

The book's lapses emerge as ones of structure and focus. The sentences and images flow on, ushering the prose forward through each paragraph and chapter. The book is a series of observations and incidents, often highly engaging in themselves but finally, for me, too loosely connected. As a novel – a whole formed of integrated parts – Ru disappoints.

Subtlety of voice and effect is Thúy's strongest hand. Never is there a sense of false drama or manipulation of pain for easy emotional gain. In strictly human terms, the book's pivotal balance between endurance and despair is delicately, beautifully realized.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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