I chose this book because it’s been ages since I read a Vietnamese book. Then I turned to the back cover and discovered that Kim Thuy is French Canadian, a former boat people person who emigrated to Canada in the late 1970s. It’s just as well, because I rarely read a Canadian book (except for Alice Munro’s and Margaret Atwood’s), and even less a Quebec book. And what a treasure I found!
Poor Quebec writers, I really fear they are short-changed in French bookshops! It should be natural for French Canadian books to be published here because there’s no need for translation, but instead journalists and publishers always make it sound like it’s weird or exotic or exceptional. Perhaps it’s a marketing strategy but at the very least a strange one, and I can understand why Canadians think French are conceited. Yet Ru was a huge success in her home country and seem to be selling very well here too. Good for her!
It’s a surprising book because it’s short and structured in mini chapters of maximum 2-3 pages. It’s evocative and poetic as Thuy concentrates on sensory memories, like a texture, a strand of hair, a smell. At the beginning I was afraid it might be nothing more than an Asian version of Philippe Delerm’s “Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules”, a bestselling collection of 1-2 pages short stories about tiny daily pleasures (translated into English as The Small Pleasures of Life). I do like Delerm’s instant shots but there has been too many copycats.
But very soon I realized that Thuy’s quality for telling a very strong, moving and unique story with her quiet, unassuming little voice. She reminded me of those seemingly frail Vietnamese women you see in the street who suddenly take upon their shoulders huge bundles twice as big as them. Make no mistake, Thuy (born in 1968) is strong as a rock, and she needed it to survive her ordeal. We’re not talking about drinking beer in the sun like Delerm, we’re talking war, betrayals (an uncle of hers denounced his own children for fear of the Communists), life-threatening flight onboard a stinking, flimsy boat, surviving dysentery in a refugee camp where 2000 people are squeezed in shacks meant for 200.
She describes the strange destiny of a family from Saigon upper class luxury to the Canadian working class, whose children eventually “made it” in their adopted country. Thuy has a very unique life indeed, and has gained some admirable wisdom along the way. She never shies away from describing very difficult memories, bit by bit, in striking sensory details, but she always highlights beauty, energy and optimism amidst a terrible reality. The book escapes both dangers of being either gloomy and sordid or pretentious, and it’s no small feat.