Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

“He wasn’t sure if parents had limits to their love, but he was worried that one day something would push them too far and he’d find out.”

After a horrible experience at his old high school Spencer Harris is ready to turn a new leaf. He’s Black, fifteen, a bit of a nerd, and good at soccer. His new private school offers him the chance to start over, and, despite his initial desire to ‘lay low’, he finds himself joying the school’s soccer team. No one at Oakley knows he’s trans, and while Spencer is not ashamed of who he is, he doesn’t want to re-experience the bullying and harassment he was subjected to at his old school.
While Spencer becomes friends with the other boys on the team, his budding crush on a fellow team member and the fact that he joined the team after his parents explicitly forbid him to…well, these make his life a bit more complicated.
Things take a downward turn when Spencer is benched due to a discriminatory law.

Isaac Fitzsimons’ prose is the classic YA coming-of-age kind of fare, simple and readable, only occasionally coming across as a wee bit green (some lines of dialogue here and there, maybe a phrase or two: “They lost the game that day, but Spencer gained a lesson he’d never forget”). I appreciated how inclusive this book was. In addition to Spencer being trans, we have queer, gay, autistic, and non-binary characters.
Spencer comes across as a realistic teenager, sometimes prone to angsting over this or that, being a bit self-involved, or giving his parents a hard time,. We can also see how hard it is for him, how anxious he is about people accepting him for who he is. He was a really sweet kid and I really admired that he speaks up about the gender-neutral bathrooms and for being so supportive towards his younger brother.
I also liked how uplifting the story was. It made me smile more than once and I am so happy that Fitzsimons didn’t let his story follow the path of many other lgbtq+ YA book (usually a character is outed) and that he actually made his mc’s parents into more than one-dimensional characters. The authors keeps a good balance between Spencer’s character arc and the romance subplot.

This was a really wholesome book. We have a cute romance, as well as good family and friendship dynamics, and the author includes realistic and current issues in his storyline. There may be the odd cheesy moment but I could have not cared less (if I wanted 100% realistic stories I would not be reading anything ever).
This is clearly a novel with a big heart. The author treats his characters and their struggles with empathy and understanding. If you are a fan of Kacen Callender or Julian Winters you should definitely consider giving The Passing Playbook a chance.

my rating: ★★★½

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