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A poetic meditation on the ever-changing human condition
on September 12, 2012
Kim Thuy is a writer based in Montreal. Ru, her first novel, won the Governor General's Literary Award in its original French.
Ru is an autobiographical novel that recounts the author's flight as a refugee from Vietnam to Quebec as a young girl, and the culture shocks she experiences as she adjusts to her new homeland.
It is somewhat misleading to label this book a novel, because it is really halfway between a novel - a sustained linear narrative - and poetry - a collection of insightful, finely-crafted and evocative images.
This beautiful book - the hardcover edition is as attractive physically as is the writing - opens with the explanation that "In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge - of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull."
And this double-meaning is in fact very appropriate for this book which flows between cultures, between times, between emotions.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus observed that "you cannot step in the same river twice" - in other words, there is no being, only becoming - a sentiment conveyed perfectly in this volume.
Thuy recounts the flow from a family life of privilege in Saigon to misery as refugees, the harbinger of impending change sensed by her mother:
"My mother waged her first battles later, without sorrow. She went to work for the first time at the age of thirty-four, first as a cleaning lady, then at jobs in plants, factories, restaurants. Before, in the life that she had lost, she was the eldest daughter of her prefect father. All she did was settle arguments between the French-food chef and the Vietnamese-food chef in the family courtyard (...)
However, far from us blood still flowed and bombs still fell, so she taught my brothers and me to get down on our knees like the servants. Every day, she made me wash four tiles on the floor and clean twenty sprouted beans by removing their roots one by one. She was preparing us for the collapse. She was right to do so, because very soon we no longer had a floor beneath our feet."
Ru is a beautiful, poetic meditation on the ever-changing human condition.