Thuy, Kim. Ru. English translation Vintage Toronto by Sheila Fischman 2012; original (French) Editions Libre Expression 2009. F; 12/13.
This is a strange and for me culturally dissonant story resembling a random collection of objects some of which shine brightly, but many of which seem out of place. In the end I’m left aesthetically and morally just confused about what Ms. Kim accomplishes.
The plot encompasses a family’s terrifyingly realistic escape from Vietnam at war, landing in Canada, and many dark but eventually affirming experiences leading to what sounded to me like a popularly-percieved Asian version of the American dream. Eating biscuits soaked in motor oil, a small girl swept overboard, and fear of the unknown are incredibly stark at the beginning. The jumble of impressions includes the wonderful comforting vision of a female Canadian teacher’s fulsome figure in the eyes of an undernourished boat girl, homesickness for North America induced by the smell of fabric softener on someone fresh off a plane, and beautifully-rendered sense of humiliatingly low status as an immigrant indigent schoolchild.
The form may be culturally appropriate, but I eventually found the haiku-poetic singsong sentences that make up the extremely short chapter-like statements, limited to a page or two, a bit much, occasionally frankly inane, even verging on nonsense. This of course could be a translation issue.
The narrator seems well-suited for her eventual success, but doesn’t dispel the ridiculous cultural stereotype of Asian émigré materialism. “Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat” she is taught early. A good maxim for survival but possibly in need of some elaboration once survival is no longer the main issue. She leaves the impression she may value sex’ use at least as much as its delight. The gorgeous cousin making a commercial success with her prepared desserts which grew out of her rudimentary roadside experience back home is just stated as if it needs no explanation or reflection.
And our narrator happily tells us she’s now wearing shoes the price of which would have fed a family in Vietnam for a year. So she made good? Terrible difficulty cured her of sentimentality? Foolish North Americans should give their heads a shake? It is what it is?
An enigma, as I say. I’m forced into an agnostic shrug: this has been a look at or into a small thing immensely internally contradictory that I suspect I just don’t understand. No score.