Rarely am I at a loss to describe a book, or even to write a review of it.
Rarely does an author so take my breath away that upon finishing her work, I am immediately moved to reread it.
Rarely does a book like Thanhha Lai's come along.
If you haven't read a novel-in-verse, you may be put off by the format. I was, for a very long time, until reading Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust. In a word, that book was stunning - it captures the experience of living in Dust Bowl Oklahoma in a voice that is spare and beautiful. Since then I've read a few others, but none quite comes close to Lai's Inside Out and Back Again.
Lai's debut novel (winner of the National Book Award) is a story based on her own experience, that of ten-year-old Ha, who with her family escapes Saigon in the wake of the Vietnam War. Ha's life is marked by loss - her father went missing in action before Ha's first birthday, her mother has drawn gradually away with the stress of supporting the whole family. And now the war - Ha's best friend flees with her family, and the loss continues. At last it becomes clear that Ha's family also must go, but with no clear idea exactly where they will end up. The escape, the boat journey, the terror of floating aimlessly with no rescue in sight - this is all part of Ha's story, as is her arrival in a strange land called Alabama, where not even a taste of her favorite fruit can bring back the feeling of her homeland.
Lai tells Ha's story with a fierce tenderness that speaks to the personal nature of the tale. Her decision to write the novel in verse is, in my estimation, a brilliant one, as it allows for the kind of stark imagery that brings the entire experience to vivid life. Bursts of humor break the tension, but never do we forget that this is a journey not only of physicality, but also of identity and of learning to find one's place in a strange land.
Like Lai's prose, Ha herself instantly captures you. She's sneakily brilliant: on the first morning of the new year, Ha tells us, male feet should touch the floor first, for luck -- but Ha wants to be the first, so she creeps her toe out of the covers to tap the ground. She's determined: her strength shines through every line, every thought, every vignette. Though the world she knew gradually slips away from her, Ha clings to her faith in herself and her family. Never does her beautiful, bright determination waver, never does her spirit become worn away.
I read this in one quick burst -- I couldn't help it -- but then went back and read shorter portions, savoring the language, the imagery, the sense of place and time and personality. This is a gorgeously written portrait of a girl whose experience echoes over and over in refugees the world over. Absolutely compelling - one of my new favorites.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, published by HarperCollins
Ages 9 up
Sample: "Water, water, water / everywhere / making me think / land is just something / I once knew / like / napping on a hammock / bathing without salt / watching Mother write / laughing for no reason / kicking up powdery dirt / and / wearing clean nightclothes / smelling of the sun."
Bonus: Thanhha Lai's interview with Publisher's Weekly