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.