As a story, Ru is disjointed and difficult to follow at times. This is a not a book with a traditional, linear plot. It is like snippets of poetry, jumping around between countries and between different moments in the life of the narrator.
It’s jarring at first, but the form is appropriate, almost mirroring the experience of the narrator herself. Kim Thúy grew up in Vietnam in a time of great upheaval, following the Tet Offensive, and her childhood is ripped from her. Her family flees, first to a Malaysian refugee camp before making it to Quebec, Canada. While Thúy expresses gratitude for her new life in Canada, she also describes what it’s like to feel her Vietnamese identity slipping away. Like the book itself, Thúy seems to live her life in both the past and present; in both Vietnam and Canada.
This conflict was reflected when Thúy describes a man who died when everyone else left the boat after arriving on a beach near Club Med.
“He retraced his steps to fetch the gold taels he’d hidden in the boat’s fuel tank. He never came back. Perhaps the taels made him sink, perhaps they were too heavy to carry. Or else the current swallowed him as punishment for looking back, or to remind us that we must never regret what we’ve left behind.”
Yet Thúy cannot help missing the smells and sounds of her childhood and Ru serves as a fascinating contemplation on what it’s like to be an immigrant. Thúy seems to feel stuck between identities, or perhaps even without an identity. As a child, she does not quite fit in in Canada. At first, her family didn’t understand that people wear different clothes for different seasons, and in winter they layered, like the “homeless.” She describes her teacher thinking she misunderstood the question when she tells her that for breakfast she eats soup, vermicelli, and rice. As an adult, she describes a newspaper article claiming that “the ‘Quebecois nation’ was Caucasian, that my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category…”
Yet, when Thúy goes back to Vietnam as an adult, she does not fit in there either. A waiter thinks she’s too fat to be Vietnamese. She describes the “American dream” as almost a blessing and curse: “Once it’s achieved, though, the American dream never leaves us, like a graft or an excrescence.”
“But the young waiter reminded me that I couldn’t have everything, that I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears. And he was right to remind me.”
What’s left is a woman with an identity crisis, who feels like she’s floating, separate from her roots. Yet despite these fascinating themes, the writing is often sparse and direct. Thúy doesn’t sugarcoat the horrific experiences that she went through as a child. She relays them to the reader as they happened.
I picked up Ru because it was part of CBC’s Canada Reads 2015 and it sounded like a very interesting and powerful story. I did find the form a little difficult to get into at first and I feel that to more fully grasp the story, I would need to re-read the book. But the writing is beautiful. The story sheds light on an interesting and often unknown time in Vietnamese history, and the themes of identity, memory, and immigration are beautifully and personally explored. Ru gave me insight into a different Canadian experience than my own, and I believe it achieves the Canada Reads theme of breaking barriers.
Have you read Ru? What were your thoughts? Have you read any other 2015 Canada Reads books?