You know that clever little feature on your Kindle that lets you highlight favourite passages? Mine went into overdrive when I was reading the utterly brilliant Ru by Kim Thúy.
At ten years old, Kim Thúy fled Vietnam on a boat with her family, leaving behind a grand house and the many less tangible riches of their home country: the ponds of lotus blossoms, the songs of soup-vendors. The family arrived in Quebec, where they found clothes at the flea market, and mattresses with actual fleas.
There’s a delicacy and an innocence to Thúy’s words that is quite simply, breathtaking.
“Love, as my son Pascal knows it, is defined by the number of hearts drawn on a card or by how many stories about dragons are told by flashlight under a down-filled comforter. I have to wait a few more years till I can report to him that in other times, other places, parents showed their love by willingly abandoning their children, like the parents of Tom Thumb.”
The story is not told chronologically. Instead, vignettes from her life in Vietnam, her life in Quebec, her life as a child and her life as an adult are woven together randomly. The overall effect is powerful – you see her strengths and her vulnerabilities. You know from the outset that it all turns out okay (and this is worth knowing as you read her recollections of her boat trip where the stench of too many people in a small space is constant and the actions of pirates, despicable).
“I met parents whose gaze had been extinguished, some beneath the weight of a pirate’s body, others during the all too many years of Communist re-education camps – not the war camps during the war, but the peacetime camps after the war…”
“My father had made plans, should our family be captured by Communists or pirates, to put us to sleep forever, like Sleeping Beauty, with cyanide pills. For a long time afterwards, I wanted to ask why he hadn’t thought of letting us choose, why he would have taken away our possibility of survival. I stopped asking myself that question when I became a mother….”
The family’s arrival in Quebec is recounted with a mixture of bafflement, joy and humour –
“I often felt there wasn’t enough space inside us to receive everything we were offered, to catch all the smiles that came our way. How could we visit the Granby zoo more than twice each weekend? How could we appreciate a camping trip to the countryside? How to savour an omelette with maple syrup?”
“One of the vendors threw in a red cowl-necked sweater for my father. He wore it every day of our first spring in Quebec….it was a woman’s sweater, nipped in at the waist. Sometimes it’s best not to know everything.”
Thúy’s story is poetic, charming, brutal and terrifying. There were some parts that, as a mother, I found very difficult to read. But Thúy plays on the theme of motherhood throughout the book (perhaps because once she became a mother herself she saw her own family history in a different way… But I won’t be presumptuous) – there are examples of families putting five children on five separate boats in the hope that at least one will survive; examples of families held to ransom; a scene in a rice field where a mother sees her son blown away by machine gun fire, his footprints still visible in the mud; and there’s also the author’s account of discovering her son is autistic. You can’t help but feel this book very deeply.
Thúy mentions so many foods in Ru – from Vietnamese pickled mango to Canadian sugar-coated doughnuts but my mouth watered for the caramelised fish.
5/5 Make time for this unforgettable story.
* My copy of Ru was supplied by Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley.