Book Review: Ru

by Kim Thúy, Sheila Fischman (Translation)

“In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge—of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.”

It was over forty years ago, but I still have vivid memories of seeing the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ on the evening news, dazed faces staring into the camera, packed tightly into small crafts, fleeing their country in terror following the war. They risked much to escape torture, repression, disease, starvation and the notorious re-education camps where they were forced into hard labour. Many didn’t survive the perilous journey.

Kim Thúy, the author of Ru – a multi-award winning, fictional memoir – was born in Saigon in 1968. She fled the Communist regime via boat with her parents and two brothers, arriving in Canada (via Malaysia) in 1979. For a time she worked as a seamstress and cashier, before opening a Vietnamese restaurant in Montréal, and at the same time obtaining degrees in linguistics and translation, followed by law. Only when her restaurant closed did she fulfil her dream of becoming an author.

Ru is a brilliant yet unsentimental piece of writing about a woman called An Tinh who, like Kim, escapes from her country’s tyrannical regime to Québec, in search of the ‘American dream’. The prose is immediate and impressionistic, and whether she is describing maggots crawling in their thousands from a cesspit or detailing various members of her protagonist’s family, the writing is rich, mesmeric and subtle.

At 162 pages, Ru is a short but intense potpourri of vignettes – powerful, superbly realized and well worth reading.


Book Review: A Maigret Christmas

by Georges Simenon, David Coward (Translation)

My 84-year-old mother is a great crime fiction buff. When she saw I was reading A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, she commented that it was a great pity “Mr Bean” had been given the part of the French detective in ITV’s recent adaption, because “although he [Rowan Atkinson] is a very good actor, one keeps on expecting him to remove his trousers or do something equally silly in the middle of an important case.”

Mr Bean aside, the TV drama has merely brought renewed interest in Simenon’s shrewd, trilby-hat wearing, pipe-smoking commissioner of the Paris ‘Brigade Criminelle’. In 2013, Penguin Books started releasing new translations of his seventy-six Maigret novels, originally published between 1931 and 1972, and this collection of seasonal stories is the latest in their Classics’ series.

Simenon (1903-1989) was a prolific author, his novels, novellas and autobiographical works numbering almost five hundred. He was Belgian born, the son of an accountant, starting out as a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège, before moving to Paris in 1922 following the death of his father. However, it was during his time as a young journalist that he came to know the seedier side of his city – his familiarity with local prostitutes, criminals and notorious drinking dens prepared him well for his profession as a writer of detective fiction.

A Maigret Christmas is the title story from this newly translated book of short fiction, in which the burly detective receives an unexpected visit from two ladies on Christmas morning. Maigret and his stoical wife, Louise (referred to throughout as Madame Maigret) are a childless couple in their fifties, endeavouring to be festive, though actually feeling rather melancholy in their soulless apartment. He is thus quietly relieved when his services are required by his neighbours following the appearance of a sinister intruder in their home. An intriguing case ensues.

The gruff but kindly Maigret was apparently based on Simenon’s good friend, Chief Inspector Marcel Guillaume, a man said to be the greatest French detective of his day. Whether “Mr Bean” was quite what he had in mind for his serial protagonist, we shall never know, but his most famous fictional character would appear to be more popular than ever.

Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for supplying the ARC of a single story from this collection.

Book Review: Love

by Hanne Ørstavik

Winters are bitingly cold in northern Norway, with an average temperature of around -17°C. Yet it is to a bleak little village in this region that Vibeke moves with Jon, her eight-year-old son, in order to make a fresh start. The story begins as the circus arrives, on the eve of his birthday.

Both mother and son are intense, cerebral individuals, who lose themselves in daydreams and struggle to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others – she chain-smokes, he continually blinks. Even so, they are overly trusting of strangers and have oddly naïve personalities. The greatest void, however, is between the two of them, and they seem to view each other from opposite sides of a wide crevasse. There is love (adoration on his part), but it is ill-defined, unfocused.

“She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.”

Voted the sixth best Norwegian book of the last 25 years, Love, by Hanna Ørstavik (originally published as Kjærlighet in 1997), has been translated into English by Martin Aitken, and is due for release in February 2018. It is an existential novel, with narratives drifting back and forth between Vibeke and Jon – they all but merge when either one or both of them become anxious. As the story develops, Ørstavik skilfully effects a feeling of dread – an unpleasant, tense, vaguely sinister sensation of impending catastrophe pervades the icy air.

Has anything significant been lost in translation? I think there probably has, but as an inveterate unilingual English-speaker I simply cannot judge. Nevertheless, I am able to say with certainty that Love is an intelligent, thoughtful, if melancholy tale, which demonstrates what can happen if we become too internalised and fail to be mindful of those we love.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.