In Kim Thúy’s fiction, Vietnam largely resides in the memories and gestures of those who fled the country during the war. More than a geographic backdrop, the nation occupies the psychic terrain of heroines who eventually arrive in Canada and thrive.
Thúy’s debut novel, Ru – which won a Governor General’s Award, among others – drew on her life as a young refugee in suburban Montreal. Her subsequent novels, Mãn and Vi, respectively drew on her days as a restaurant owner and attorney, broaching themes of family, diaspora, and identity. Comprised of vignettes, each of these slender and poetic novels is centred on a protagonist, her confidantes, and emphasizes love and human connection.
Em, Thúy’s fourth and latest novel translated from French, begins instead by introducing the external forces impacting families tied by blood or by choice during the Vietnam War. Bookended by information about latex rubber and the Cold War, the narrative follows a cast of characters that includes a French rubber plantation owner, mixed race orphans, soldiers, and enterprising immigrants, as they navigate the war and its aftermath.
“If your heart shudders on reading these stories of foreseeable madness, unimagined love, or everyday heroism,” Thúy writes in Em, “know that the whole truth would very probably have provoked in you either respiratory failure or euphoria. In this book, truth is fragmented, incomplete, unfinished, in both time and space.”
An opening note explains the title: “The word em refers to the little brother or little sister in a family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple.” Reflecting this concept is a succession of plot lines featuring relationships between the stalwart and the vulnerable.
The cumulative power of these threads lends not only momentum but reach. Characters, linked by chance, shepherd one another through historical events such as the My Lai massacre and Operation Frequent Wind, as well as the growth of the global nail care industry. The figure of Hồng, an orphan adopted by an American politician and his wife following Operation Babylift (which saw the evacuation of biracial children from Vietnam at the end of the war), continues Thúy’s interest in the ways personal sacrifice can lead others to flourish.
Expertly handled by her long-time translator, Sheila Fischman, the text juxtaposes horror and beauty to lasting effect. The prose is poised and elegant even when describing atrocity. On the deployment of rainbow herbicides, Thúy writes, “The child, witness to the deafening dance of the planes, could not have made the connection between the trail of mist and the leaves falling, freed by the winds, as in love songs.”
While all her previous novels portray those who escaped Vietnam to seek brighter futures, her new work also considers those never able to pursue better tomorrows. This is Thúy’s most ambitious and affecting book yet. Both sprawling and intimate, Em amplifies her storytelling and is a moving memorial to survivors and those who perished alike.