(In the interests of full disclosure: I did have the pleasure of meeting Thi around this time last year on residency in the Atlantic Center for the Arts, in Florida. However, there is no flattery in the below review of her book, believe it or not. I have taken The Book Reviewer’s Ink Oath of Sincerity, so you can trust me.)
Thi Bui is in the midst of telling us an important story – two chapters of which are already completed.This is a story of one family that plays out against a most dramatic period of history, a history we all have some familiarity with, albeit through the distorting lens of Hollywood. It’s the story of a small, beleaguered country called Vietnam.
But it is the skillful engagement of the detail – of the personal – which makes these chapters so compelling, so heartbreaking. The characters cannot fail to remind the reader of her own family. My Ma, for instance, is also somehow the Ma in the book – she just happens to be from another small country, Ireland, living in different circumstances. Drawn in black ink, with watercolour passages, the stark drama of that medium is stylistically descriptive of the story – that is the magic of comics, the two become one. What other medium can offer the multiple layers of time that a comic can? The narrator’s commentary made long after the event, and the dialogue of that moment, sit together in one frame, alongside the image. It is closely observed, honest, unsentimental, it doesn’t shrink from the painful. It has the sincerity of a life bravely examined. There is room for humour, too (see image two).
In the hospital scenes, for instance, the narrative is carried by the choice of angles, the layout, timing, the way recurrent images of the protagonist crop up and build on each other, to create its own specific language. Here, for instance, (see image one) we see her as a child herself – a reminder that life loops around and repeats itself, that personal history never goes away, a main theme in these chapters. It says so much about the cult of the doctor in our culture, too, about how we are infantilised by the way medical professionals treat us.
All this is avery long-winded way to say that I look forward to Chapter Three, Thi. Thank you for your work.