by Kim Thuy, July 10, 2013

I read this book slowly, partly because I was reading a French novel for the first time in many years, but also because it is so beautifully written. So I took my time, savouring the eloquent but very accessible French narrative that wove a story of a young Vietnamese refugee.

Through a series of poetic vignettes that flow back and forth in time we get to know An as a young refugee in Québec and a younger girl in Viet Nam before fleeing to Canada with her family, as well as a present-day mother with two sons. Each snapshot is triggered by something in the previous entry, so they are connected, but not at all linear. I found the structure of the book interesting as it mimics how our minds flit from one thing to another, but I have seldom read a book in that format.

The style of the book gives the story an air of gentleness, despite some of the harsh episodes Thuy relates. The memoir format has a very personal feeling to it, as though we are reading someone’s diary. I was hooked immediately, although I did enjoy the earlier part of the book with An as a young girl, more than the later part when she is an adult.

Although it would be understandable if An’s world view were bleak, I found her voice to be very positive. Rather than dwell on the horrendous hardships that she endured and witnessed, she focuses instead on the supportive community that surrounds her in Québec, and her strong family ties. Her relationships with her mother, cousin, sons, and uncle, are all very different, but her extensive writing about them makes it clear how important each one is to her.

Humour also adds to the positive feeling. One hilarious example is when a young inspector is cataloguing their possessions after the communists come to Saigon. When he comes to a chest of drawers filled to the brim with brassieres he seems reluctant to write down the contents. An wonders if he is embarrassed by the idea of all those young girls and their round breasts. But no—later she overhears a conversation among the inspectors that explains the problem—he had simply never seen a brassiere before! To him they looked like the coffee filters that his mother used. But he can’t understand why they would need so many, and why they were in pairs?!

She depicts the soldiers with humanity, outlining their poor background, and describing how they learn to love music (in secret of course, since this was strictly forbidden). Later they are forced to burn all cultural symbols, and the burning of books, music, films, etc. fills the sky with smoke.

Thuy ends the book with a lovely acknowledgement to those who have gone before her and how they illustrated the possibility of renewal. She has followed in their footsteps as in a dream "où le rouge profond d'une feuille d'érable à l'automne n'est plus une couleure mais une grâce ; où un pays n'est plus un lieu, mais une berceuse." (where the deep red of a fall maple leaf is no longer a colour but a blessing; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby. — I can’t do justice to the French but you get the idea!) A book filled with hope that I highly recommend.


When my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, I inherited her wedding rings. They sat in a jewellery box for quite awhile as I considered what to do with them. They seemed so personal and so completely hers, not mine. Then a lovely conversation with a friend made me realize what a gift I had. She had several pieces of jewellery, including rings, that she had inherited from different relatives. As she pointed to each of the pieces she was wearing, she told me who she had received it from, and gave a mini-bio of the donor. Each one was a memento of someone whom she had cared about and served as a daily reminder of the role that person had played in her life. She was proud to wear them and to remember the people she had loved.

That conversation spurred me to consider my mother-in-law’s rings again. I had always been a bit in awe of her. She was bold and experimental with her cooking and her painting and she created beauty in her home and her amazing garden. She was a nurse and was very active as a volunteer in the community. I admired her greatly and grew to love her very much.

So I took the box out again and put her sweet old-fashioned wedding band on my ring finger with my rings and it has stayed there ever since. Then I studied her engagement ring: it was a simple gold band with three diamonds. Very beautiful and classy. I still didn’t want to wear it and it didn’t fit with my rings, so I took it to a wonderful jeweller who had made me an anniversary ring many years earlier and asked him to use her ring as the basis for a bracelet. (Mourguet, for the Toronto readers. He’s on Queen St. E. in the Beaches and he is fantastic!) After a bit of a discussion with him and a few sketches on either side, he came up with a fabulous design. I picked it up two days ago and I am thrilled with what he made. It is so completely perfect and beautiful and simple, and I’m sure my mother-in-law would have loved it too! If you look closely, you can see a line of gold on each silver band, and that’s the gold from her ring. So he used the whole ring in making this bangle and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result:

I would be interested to hear if anyone else has stories about wearing jewellery or clothing that you’ve inherited. Now that I’ve done this I can’t wait to wear it at every opportunity!