Verse novels can sometimes be difficult for me to get my head around. Poetry as a form seems so much more subjective to me than prose, so I tend to find myself struggling to parse and analyze what I see in front of me. The truth is, if I find myself spending time analyzing the form of the novel, it's already lost me. I should be able to drift off into the story, reading as easily as I would any other book. Thankfully, this is exactly what happened while I was reading Inside Out and Back Again, the new novel from Thanhha Lai.
Largely autobiographical, Inside Out and Back Again tells a year in the life of ten-year-old Kim Hà, as she moves with her family from her home in Vietnam when Saigon falls to Alabama, and the basement of her American sponsor. She moves from a life that, though troubled by war, is familiar and full of the things she loves, like her beloved Papaya tree, to a life of alienation and uncertainty. The novel is divided into four parts, labeled "Saigon", "At Sea", "Alabama" and "From Now On" and each entry is dated, though some have only approximate times, and some are even labeled "Every day".
I was drawn into Hà’s world very easily and was able to sympathize with her status as the youngest and only girl. Lai uses language beautifully to describe Hà’s confusion, determination and longing for a missing father she does not even remember. What is most enjoyable about this book, as I said before, was how easily it reads, smoothly and with nary a hiccup on the horizon. Lai hasn't taken too difficult things, a verse novel and an historical fiction novel, and blended them together beautifully, in a book that is both memorable and meaningful.
A note on the cover: While the art gives away nothing of time or place, I find the colors and the movement simply beautiful. It's probably my favorite cover of the year so far.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai