... accomplishes in some 160 pages what has taken many historians volumes to tell ... Thúy achieves this awesome task by crafting a complex whole out of one-to-three page sliver-like chapters, each of which retain a shifting, cinematic focus on the movements of a handful of characters ... With the deft hand of the master craftsman, Thúy weaves the narrative in and out of linearity, allowing each piece of narrative to announce its rightful place in the puzzle ... To those who might object that this sounds a bit too illustrative of historical circumstance, it is to Thúy’s profound gifts as a novelist that she evades this trap by fracturing her narrative midway through the book – as an ironic reflection of the very real fracturings that took place at the war’s end – into a confused morass of stories that gradually and fascinatingly resolve themselves in the book’s final pages ... The prose here is some combination of journalistic conveyance and the condensed mode of storytelling often referred to as 'flash fiction' ... Formally, Thúy’s work seems ready to be placed next to that of the great North American minimalist writers like Mary Robison and Diane Williams, who similarly manage to pull off an entire range of pathos within the span of a paragraph or two; though it is ultimately Marguerite Duras, who similarly uses the French language as a tool for reconciliation (and, perhaps uncoincidentally, spent her youth in colonial Indochina), who accomplishes a peculiar poetry of unadornment and longing similar to that of Thúy ... What Thúy, whose elegantly economical French is rendered here into a refined and lucid English by renowned Quebecois translator Sheila Fischman, manages to produce is an engrossing narrative that holds its own idiosyncratic style—something that should, after all, be the task of every novel to accomplish, but is seen increasingly rarely.
The cumulative power of these threads lends not only momentum but reach ... Expertly handled by her long-time translator, Sheila Fischman, the text juxtaposes horror and beauty to lasting effect. The prose is poised and elegant even when describing atrocity ... While all her previous novels portray those who escaped Vietnam to seek brighter futures, her new work also considers those never able to pursue better tomorrows. This is Thúy’s most ambitious and affecting book yet. Both sprawling and intimate, Em amplifies her storytelling and is a moving memorial to survivors and those who perished alike.
In the narrative, small movements have large effects ... Characters appear and reappear as the threads weave together in economical but potent prose. Thúy troubles the line between fiction and nonfiction and their different ideas of truth ... The book is human-focused and not a historical account; in the end, it feels like a work of visual and literary art at once ... A brief, moving meditation on the nature of truth, memory, humanity, and violence: a powerful work of art.