Kim Thúy’s autobiographical debut novel, RU, describes a life-changing voyage from a childhood in strife-filled postwar Vietnam to a new beginning in 1970s Quebec. Unflinching in content and strikingly unique in form, the novel is itself an ambitious journey. RU is a poetic and highly individual exploration of what it can mean to straddle multiple cultures and identities simultaneously.
The word “ru” is Vietnamese for lullaby. In French it can signify a stream or flow. A fitting title for this book, given both RU’s haunting and incantatory writing style and the migratory passage the Montreal-based novelist describes. Although the first-person narrator of RU identifies herself in the novel’s opening pages as a woman named Nguyen An Tinh, the author has told the Quebec press that the book’s events accurately reflect her personal recollections of a life characterized by dramatic environmental shifts. That harrowing travelogue includes fleeing from an opulent lifestyle as a South Vietnamese child of privilege, to an overcrowded Malaysian refugee camp, to eventual settlement in and acculturation to Bill 101-era Quebec. In unadorned and dignified prose, Thúy spares no detail about the harsh passage by overfull boat, marked by abundances of scabies and excrement, and equal measures of terror and hope.