For once I honestly cannot recall how I learned of this book. I suppose in trolling for prize winners (it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award) or for books in my Reading The World project. Regardless of how I found it, I’m glad I read it.
“From my father I inherited the permanent feeling of satisfaction….Very early, my father learned how to live far away from his parents, to leave places, to love the present tense, to let go any attachment to the past.”
Nguyen An Tịnh, the fictionalized version of the author, tells her story in vignettes. Her birth in Vietnam, the harrowing trip out by boat. The years of waiting. Arrival in Quebec, which she confusingly calls her ‘American Dream’ which I supposed is more understandable than simply “my North American dream,” her life is told in episodes that sometimes run a few pages, sometimes barely cover an entire paragraph. The family’s immigrant experience is familiar–well off, well educated parents who speak fluent French had to earn a living cleaning toilets. Their daughter takes Quebec life in stride.
The writing was so captivating, the emotions right on the surface, that I had to remind myself again and again that this was a novel. Like many children whose childhoods are marred by trauma, she is always ready to go–she packs light, taking only books (p,100). Her memories in the story circle in and around present-day and everywhere in between.
“As a child, I thought that war and peace were opposites. Yet I lived in in peace when Vietnam was in flames and I didn’t experience war until Vietnam had laid down its weapons. I believe that war and peace are actually friends, who mock us.”
While there was one scene I felt must have been added to meet that seemingly mandated list of must-haves in the very p,c, world of publishing (well, it seems that way), this book is exactly enough of her story. Even one more page would have sent it over the edge and into “ordinary.” It is just short of extraordinary–exactly where it needs to be. I do not always agree when books have a long list of awards, but this one definitely earned them.