Born during the Tet Offensive, Kim Thuy left Saigon with her family, escaping by boat to a Malaysian refugee camp and then to Quebec. Her narrator, Nguyen An Tinh, describes the trade-offs between the peace and security of Canada and the erasure of identity. On a trip back she realises that she has changed, "because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears". Despite her new life, she carries a past freighted with guilt.
There is much that surprises and horrifies here. Nguyen's aunts and uncles played tennis at private clubs, read French novels and were involved in politics. Her mother, who later scrubs toilets and waits tables in Canada, was raised to be a princess who dressed in fine Parisian lace. When the Communists arrived and the banking system crumbled, they became experts at buying, selling and hiding gold and diamonds.
Nguyen's family is grateful to the Canadians for their generosity. But even that kindness can provoke the terror lingering beneath the surface. On a school trip to a nature reserve, a botanist encourages the kids to examine the insects. Nguyen "knows the sound of flies by heart", because at the refugee camp their hum was the only distraction from the horror of sitting above a vast pit of excrement where an old woman once drowned. Her cousins join the family in Canada where, they casually describe "with mocking laughter, how they had masturbated men in exchange for a bowl of soup".
Thuy's sparse style lends itself to such disturbing disclosures. Translated from French, the novel is written as a series of prose poems that alternate with longer passages. Neither is there a classical narrative arc; there is the tracking of parallel lives that intertwine: Canada in the present, Vietnam in the past. Thuy often ends a section with a phrase she picks up in the next, linking ideas and images through repetition that in a less graceful writer would grate. Instead, the effect is moving, as she suggests that the survivor learns the ability to endure sorrow while holding a steady gaze, "no matter the mood of the moment".