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Maleficium

by Martine Desjardins; Fred A. Reed and David Homel, trans.

Ru

by Kim Thúy; Sheila Fischman, trans.

In French, the word ru means a small stream or, figuratively, a flow. In Vietnamese, ru is a lullaby. Kim Thúy establishes the disparate meanings of this single syllable as the launching point for a series of vignettes that sketch one woman’s immigrant experience, in the process exploring themes of communication, memory, and motherhood.

The novel’s events closely mirror the facts of Thúy’s life, including her childhood in Vietnam and her family’s escape by boat to a Malaysian refugee camp in 1978. Like Thúy, Ru’s fictional narrator immigrates to Canada at age 10, comes of age in Montreal, and raises a son who has autism. Thúy’s proximity to the story gives Ru an authentic narrative voice, and helps to vividly evoke the Vietnam War from a civilian’s perspective. (One particularly arresting image involves a woman’s body torn to pieces in the street, surrounded by yellow squash blossoms.) In addition, Sheila Fischman’s translation of the Governor General’s Literary Award–winning French text is fluid and poetic.

The narrator’s patchwork recollections tell a classic multigenerational story, but the book’s format keeps it fresh. Small sections flow non-chronologically, like memories, intersecting via common elements such as a feeling of vulnerability, a particular skin tone, a bowl of soup, or a scar.

Ru’s treatment of autism is not typical, either. The narrator mentions her son’s condition directly only a handful of times, but sustains a broader reflection on abstract subjects such as alienation and a failure to communicate. The effect is an intelligent portrayal that likens the immigrant experience to living with autism.

A meticulous care with language extends throughout the book, with only one noticeable exception. Thúy’s discussion of the American dream as something that physically grows on a person, ingraining desires, is precise and masterful. However, “the American dream” becomes a frequent refrain and – when used mainly to refer to a Canadian context – seems ironic and indiscriminate in a book so preoccupied with national identities.

Ru is otherwise impeccably crafted, pervaded by subtle humour and a rich sense of time and place. Its laconic vignettes successfully capture the flickering quality of memory, pegging it as a complex blend of fact and fiction, permanence and fragility.

Questions of memory and truth also take centre stage in Quebec author Martine Desjardins’s fourth book, Maleficium. Another translation from the French, with a plot that shuttles between Montreal and the other side of the world, Maleficium plays on personal histories and takes an adventurous turn toward the bizarre.

Framed as an early-20th-century vicar’s true account, the book consists of monologues from seven men, each of whom confesses a separate encounter with the same bewitching, scar-faced woman during his travels abroad. The woman – who alternates as a governess, a photographer, and a mystic – inevitably attracts each man by offering some essential assistance in his quest for profit or glory.

All seven confessions take the reader to exotic locales with richly wrought surroundings. A search for rare red saffron in Kashmir or the pursuit of a dangerous locust swarm on the Arabian Peninsula, for instance, set the stage for engrossing tales shot through with mythical qualities.

A creative focus on the carnal runs throughout the narratives as each man comes to covet some fantastical aspect of the woman’s body: the tail-like curve of her back, her perfectly helical ears, the golden scales that pour like tears from her eyes. Quirkiness abounds as each man goes to extreme lengths to possess what he desires.

What begins as a rich and original story, however, begins to feel formulaic when it becomes clear that every monologue follows the same pattern. All seven men are similar, their voices largely indistinct.

Despite the repetitiveness, Maleficium’s momentum is saved by the suspense surrounding each sinner’s obscure (and unique) fate. The woman curses each character with a peculiar bodily affliction, and because the narrative places readers in the vicar’s position, we are allowed the satisfaction of judging the appropriateness of each punishment.

Overall, the collection of confessions takes a deliciously strange approach to remembering and retelling the past. In an unexpected twist near the end, an eighth perspective adds compelling backstory and transports readers to new terrain altogether.