by Kim Thúy

Libre Expression, 2009

Penguin Random House Canada, 2012

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Behold the literary phenomenon that is Kim Thúy’s Ru:

Over 120,000 copies sold in Québec and 100,000 copies sold worldwide! Winner 2011 — Grand prix littéraire Archambault Winner 2011 — Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism Winner 2010 — Prix du Grand Public at the Salon du livre de Montréal–Essai/Livre pratique Winner 2010 — Governor General’s Award for Fiction (French-language) Winner 2010 — Grand Prix RTL-Lire at the Salon du livre de Paris Shortlisted 2012 — Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlisted 2012 — Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation Longlisted 2013 — Man Asian Literary Prize Longlisted 2014 — International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award And now the winner of Canada Reads 2015, with CBC bestowing on it “the power to break barriers in Canada.”

Rights have been sold to ALBANIA (Dritan)… BULGARIA (Colibri)… CANADA-ENGLISH (Knopf-Random House)… CANADA BOOK CLUB (Québec Loisirs)… CZECH REPUBLIC (Emitos)… DENMARK (Gad)… FRANCE (Liana Levi)… FRANCE-POCKET (Le Livre de Poche)… FRANCE BOOK CLUB (France Loisirs, Grand Livre du Mois)… GERMANY (Kunstmann)… ITALY (Nottetempo)… JAPAN (Sairyu sha)… NORWAY (Perleblekk)… POLAND (Drzewo Babel)… PORTUGAL (Objectiva)… ROMANIA (Spandugino)… SPAIN AND LATIN AMERICA (Alfaguara)… SERBIA (Clio)… SWEDEN (Sekwa)… THE NETHERLANDS (Van Gennep)… UNITED KINGDOM AND AUSTRALIA (Clerkenwell Press)… USA (Bloomsbury). And Pixcom of Montreal holds the motion picture rights.

But is it any good?

I’m ambivalent about Ru. It’s a good book; clearly many people think it’s a very good book. Like most first-time novelists, Kim Thúy relies heavily on first-hand experience — that hard-to-unpack blend of memoir and fiction — to put together her first novel. Unlike most first-time novelists, her work has met with wave after wave of success. No doubt because the technique used as a crutch by too many — “Write about what you know” — proves no more than a reassuring, helping hand to Thúy: hers is at least a story worth telling, and it is well told.

It is the tale of just one of the boat people, a tale with specific roots in leaving Vietnam as a refugee to flee the Communists and, at times, a broader, more familiar — too familiar? — tale of the immigrant experience, of reaching out and grabbing the Canadian dream with both hands, deaf and dumb though she may have been at the beginning in her new country, in her new language.

There is something captivating about the narration, almost unreal, larger than life certainly. We are not in a black and white documentary, nor in a zany comedy full of quirky characters. Either way, the effect is more charming than destabilizing. A wave, for example, that capsizes a boat is described simply and unusually as “trop gourmande” (“especially greedy” in Fischman’s translation). And the town of Granby is “the warm belly that sheltered us during our first year in Canada.”

Thúy, or rather, the narrator comes across as grateful, generous, big-hearted. Too much so, at times. There’s a lot to be grateful for, but when childhood friends are described as “angels” in this “heaven on earth” the writing sticks to the page like maple syrup. Is this Thúy’s problem as a writer or the fault of the cynical reader, jaded by so many stories of miracles and life-saving transformations that when something truly extraordinary does come along, we are unsure how to react to all this goodness? Feeling good is fine, but we want the writing to feel real.

But feel good we do, swept along on Thúy’s tide of enthusiasm in one of the longest, most articulate thank-you notes in history. An ode to a place “where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume, but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.” Is it any wonder this book just won Canada Reads? Then suddenly there we are. Back among the flies and the shit and the worms of the refugee camps. Don’t you see, Thúy seems to be telling us. We were gorging ourselves on the sugary goodness of life in Granby, but can’t you imagine how great it felt after the hell that came before it?

Suddenly we are back in Vietnam, to where it all began. And that is where Ru truly comes into its own. Thúy is at her best when life is at its darkest, recounting the lows “through fragments, through scars, through glimmers of light.”

Perhaps the book’s success can be put down to a “best of both worlds” quality that at times might be mistaken for middle-of-the-roadness. It is perfect book club fodder: Exotic, but not too foreign. Well written, but not hard to read, not overly literary. From Quebec, but universal enough to be translated and read in so many languages. It’s a safe choice, part of a rather bland current of global world literature that takes few risks.

Does it deserve its runaway success? In my view, no. But who said there was a fair formula for doling out success to deserving books? (And fair play to Ru and the lovely Kim Thúy in the meantime.) Would it be the first book I would recommend to someone looking to discover Quebec literature? Not on your life.

Review by Peter McCambridge

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