‘Vi’ by Kim Thúy: book review

by Edith Cody-Rice 

Kim Thúy is the award winning author of Ru and Mãn. In this, her fourth novel, the lyrical prose is so deeply personal that the reader feels it must be autobiographical and indeed it does follow closely the life of its author Kim Thúy, a Vietnamese-Canadian woman who escaped Vietnam at the end of the US/Vietnamese war as one of the boat people who made their way to Canada.

The protagonist, Vi,  is the youngest of 4 children, given this name which means “precious, tiny one”. Her capable mother was an unlikely choice for her spoiled wealthy father in Vietnam before the cataclysm of the war. It is her mother whose canny business sense and personal code sustain the family. In the chaos after the war, her mother decides to escape with her children to unknown parts as part of the vast exodus across the sea to refugee camps and afterwards, to scattered nations. Her father stays put and we hear little of him again until the end of the book.

The novel chronicles, in vignettes, the life of Vi, both as a child in Vietnam and a young girl and woman in Canada. She grows away from the customs of her Vietnamese roots and in becoming North American, shames the mother who had brought her out of Vietnam and who, in Canada, is a pillar of the emigré society. Vi returns to Vietnamese society as a Canadian lawyer to help rebuild the society, an activity frowned upon by those who escaped the Viet Cong. Her loss of her father is repeated in the man whom she loves as an adult who suddenly disappears.

As well as a story about the protagonist Vi, this is is also the story of a Vietnamese family reinventing itself in a new country, their pursuits, their resilience and the society of which they become a part.

When interviewed about the book, Kim said,

“I want to talk about how we learn to live,” she says.

“It’s not because we’re given a life that we know how to live. I think we need to learn to live. My mom keeps repeating that when you’re born into a life, you have to learn how to stand, walk, drink, how to be a human, because we don’t walk the same way if we’re walking into a temple or going on a catwalk.”

Kim also states that she put the societies of Canada and Vietnam side by side to emphasize the peace and security that we enjoy in Canada. Vietnam is wonderful and complex, but Canada is silent and peaceful and Canadians do not appreciate this enough.

This is a refined and elegant book,  not long, but involving. It is translated from the French by the superb Sheila Fischman, certainly one of Canada’s best translators. She has  won the Molson Prize in the arts, and the Order of Canada and is a  chevalier of the Order of Quebec, honours awarded for her wonderful, true to the text and tone translations. The print edition is also beautifully bound and a pleasure to hold, reminiscent of early twentieth century books of poetry bound in parchment paper with torn edges.

Published by Penguin Random House Canada

130 pages