This book was the Canada Reads winner for 2015. It is a thinly veiled memoir classed as fiction, although I see it as more of a reflection or lullaby (which happens to be the Vietnamese meaning of the title). Thuy uses short vignettes to show the importance of memory in preserving her culture and her family. Reading these small fragments was much like travelling through the memories of a stranger; a boat floating down a foreign river (and there’s the French meaning of the title). Often non-chronological, we can sometime see the connections between the unnamed narrator’s memories, but other times the order is simply based on those illogical links that our brains like to make.
Despite Thuy’s childhood during the Vietnam War, this novel is focused on her family’s escape, and the immigrant experience upon arrival in Canada. Like a child looking back on her short life, the narrator of Ru focuses on specific details that make childhood memorable, instead of the big historical events she survived. Coming to Canada on a boat from Vietnam is briefly recalled, but more emphasis is placed on trying to fit in to life in Montreal.
Not all of the memories are seemingly connected to Vietnam and her family’s role as refugees, which shows that the narrator is not only defined by this experience. This is a non-conventional novel in which the series of memories are perhaps difficult to connect with – each memory has a specific meaning for the storyteller, but as an outsider, the reader may not be able to gather much significance from these fragments of memory. The narrator moves from upper class Saigon to Malaysian refugee camps to Quebec, and finally returns to Vietnam, but we must track this journey through disjointed memories.
The narrator writes that her parents didn’t have a lot, but they “passed on to us the wealth of their memories” (p. 41). Proust and his famous madeleines are also recalled in the author’s quest for remembrance of things past (p. 52). Each memory triggers the next, leaving the reader with a sense of dislocation. I found that each passage was best when handled separately and read out loud – I think it would be perfect to read this book in one sitting, then dip back in and savour certain memories as the pieces of poetry that they are, until you come to a place “where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby” (p. 140).