This the heavily autobiographical debut novel of Vietnamese refugee, lawyer and linguist, Kim Thuy, is far from straightforward. Across a 150-page chain of vignettes, with scenes that surrender all semblance of order to the free-fall of memory, the initial impression is probably one of deep admiration for such an ambitious approach to structure and the elegant, lyrical flow of prose gently translated from French.
The plot, what little there is, threads a well-worn path: Nguyen An Tinh is born into a privileged Saigon family during the Tet Offensive, and has her world shattered when the Communist inspectors come and confiscate everything. Luckier than most, the family are able to buy their escape and, with a few diamonds sown into the collars of their shirts they set off to build a future elsewhere.
Initially they bear a temporary stint in a Malaysian refugee camp before finally washing up in Quebec, an hospitable, open-armed and thoroughly foreign place in which they can settle down to life, liberty, and the endless, reckless pursuit of the American Dream. But for Nguyen, there is an overwhelming need to return, to see her home again.
It is the invention of its technique, coupled with a rare sense of substance, that elevates this short novel above so many of its kind.
The vignette approach allows for considerable freedom, and presents Miss Thuy with an opportunity to focus only on the sharpest splinters of her own past. As might be expected in surrendering to such minutiae, which on certain pages distills to an almost overwhelming sense of the surreal, there is little in the way of linear narrative. Yet far from feeling disjointed, the links between scenes are perfectly weighted and the progression oddly natural.
To risk all on the sum of its parts might seem dangerous, but the material’s innate truth justifies its author’s faith and through skilful assembly a whistle-clean story emerges. And yet, the story matters less than the raw acceptance of its moments, often brutal, occasionally full of beauty, the unexpected glimpses recounted without judgement or sentimentality of a world we know only through hearsay.
“Sometimes a mine exploded. One day a woman was torn to pieces, surrounded by yellow squash blossoms, scattered, fragmented. She must have been on her way to the market to sell her vegetables. Maybe they also found the body of her baby by the roadside. Or not.”
Critical acclaim has already been effusive, earning Ru a horde of honours, including Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award. It is a difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding read from an author already at the top of her game.