Saturday, October 31, 2015

two books by Kim Thúy

Ru
by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2012 (originally published in French in 2009)
141 pages

Mãn
by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2014 (originally published in French in 2013)
139 pages

Here's a thing I don't do often: read a book, and then immediately go out and find whatever I can by the same author and read that too. I did it in this case. And the strange thing is that - I liked Ru. I respected Ru. I didn't think I'd loved it. But perhaps, in some way that my own brain didn't quite clue in to, I did? It helped, too, that Mãn had just come out very recently, and working in a library, I had it to hand immediately.

It's a little hard to hang on to either of these books in specifics, in that they don't have much in the way of characters or plot. But they do have imagery and tone, and somehow Kim Thúy has managed to make those the driving force of Ru, and to a lesser extent Mãn. The latter does have more plot, and significantly more character. This may or may not be a good thing; I liked them both, and originally thought of Mãn as being the stronger, and underrated. But it's Ru that has stuck with me more clearly. Both explore the life of a woman who has come from Vietnam, as a refugee (in Ru) or after the war (in Mãn). The war plays a large role in both these novels, as does the experience of coming to a new country - in this case, Canada - and making a life here.

One of the meanings for the word "ru" is lullaby - Thúy explains this at the beginning of the book. In many ways, Ru struck me as a series of images that might bubble up before sleep. Ru and Mãn don't even really have chapters; they have paragraphs, or sections. Sometimes a section is a line or two long. Sometimes it's three, maybe five pages. I'm not sure there were any sections longer than that. Each is a painstakingly crafted image, memory, or moment, from a first person perspective. The narrator can be a bit dry, or maybe a better way to describe her is "reserved," but one gets the impression that she is always trying to be honest. Some of the sections are connected. Some of them are not, other than they have the same narrator.

Both start fairly slowly, especially because (to me at least) the format can come as a bit of a shock. Because neither book is structured as a typical novel, and without the usual components like a solid, chronological plot or dialogue or conventional characterization to hang on to, one can feel a bit adrift for the first little while. I worried about this, when I started Ru, because it's not a long book. I needn't have worried.

The books - most especially Ru, but Mãn as well, to a lesser extent - unfold like a series of beautiful blossoms, each page or section a memory, hanging off each other like a delicate string of pearls. If you hold them lightly, something wonderful happens. The reader does a lot of the work, filling in blanks. Nothing is explicit. But gradually a picture begins to develop - of Vietnam, of the life of a "displaced" person, of how a person can break apart and slowly be put back together, but never again without scars. Mãn, with its more explicit plot, does a lot more of the work for the reader. Which means that though I think it's stronger in some ways - it gives one more to sink one's teeth into - it also imposes itself on the reader, where Ru almost feels like it comes from within.

Neither one of these books will take you very long to read. And both are worth it. But if you're going to read just one, read Ru. Be prepared to open yourself to it, no matter how slow or odd it seems at first, as a reading experience; you will be rewarded.

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