Ru is Kim Thúy’s time-shifting biographical novel about fleeing war-torn Vietnam in 1979 to start over in Granby, Québec.
While labels are reductive, names and nouns are a linguistic starting point we rely on to understand what it is we’re working with.
As a reader, I struggled with the book as a biographical novel. Which parts are true? Which bits are fiction? The fact that the line blurs, troubled me. I visited Hanoi, Vietnam for a short week, but of all my travels, it’s been my favorite trip. I guess — and my inability to digest this book as a biographical novel is not a criticism, simply my personal response — I’m eager to know more about a country I loved and want to return to from someone with first-hand experience far deeper than mine.
Even memoirs have hazy edges; memory is malleable, imperfect, and fallible, though a fictionalized biography seems to taunt you with the truth. This book is a series of short, detailed, vivid vignettes — scenes set before you like a delicious, carefully prepared full-course meal, but you’re left wondering if the crab cakes you’re eating are actually made of pollock, or something else entirely.
The definition of “ru” in French and Vietnamese as it appears in the beginning of the book gave me pause:
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.
For me, “Ru” rings true in French as a river of tears, of blood, and money flows from re-education camps into Mirabel Airport in France as refugees flee Vietnam with all their worldly wealth (diamonds and gems) embedded in their teeth. I found dissonance in “ru” in Vietnamese as a lullaby, given the torture, expropriation, poverty, and depravity the book depicts.
These questions aside, Ru is a beautiful novel translated from French into English. It’s featured as one of the books in the 2015 Canada Reads competition. It’s worth your time.
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