In her slim, partly autobiographical first novel, Thúy, a Vietnamese-Canadian writing in French, seeks to make sense through memories of a life straddling East and West.
That life unfolds haphazardly. It belongs to Nguyen An Tinh. She was born into a prosperous family in Saigon in 1968. When the Communists took over seven years later, they also took over part of their house. In 1978, the family became boat people, crossing the pirate-infested Gulf of Siam to reach Malaysia. From a foul refugee camp there, they traveled to Canada. Their first year was “heaven on earth,” and the country became their new home. At some point, Nguyen married a white Westerner and gave birth to twins, one of them autistic. So, you can package these details neatly, but it’s not something Thúy cares to do, preferring a montage to a chronological narrative, a progression sustained by images of family life. Some of the family members make the cut because they’re so colorful. There’s Uncle Two (so named because he is the second born), a prominent Saigon politician and playboy who will report his fleeing sons to the Communist authorities; and retarded, unmarried Aunt Seven, who will mysteriously give birth in a convent. Nguyen’s mother, a disciplinarian, runs their Saigon house, while her father, puzzlingly, is a blank; both parents take menial jobs in Canada for their children’s future. Her husband only rates one mention; perhaps this is because she considers men “replaceable.” (Maternal love is the only love that counts.) Nguyen herself, a silent, self-effacing shadow as a child, slowly blossoms; on a return journey to Vietnam, she understands how her fragile Vietnamese psyche has been covered by the armor of Western self-confidence. What has she learned? Travel light; don’t regret what’s past; enjoy “the unspeakable beauty of renewal.”
As a quest for identity, Thúy’s work is not altogether satisfying, but her powerful scene-setting makes her a writer to watch.