Beauty in brevity
Thúy’s sophomore novel thin but thrilling
SOME writers speak volumes with a few well-chosen words. Canadian author Kim Thúy is such a writer. Thúy first demonstrated her extraordinary way with words with her debut novel Ru, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. She demonstrates that talent again with her sparse and elegant new novel, Mãn. This recent fiction, like the author’s debut, has been translated from French into English by award-winning Montreal translator Sheila Fischman. Like Ru, it is a semiautobiographical tale that borrows elements ffrom Thúy’s own history of exile and immigration. Thúy emigrated ffrom war-torn Saigon to Montreal as a child in 1979. Mãn — which means pperfect fulfillment in Vietnamese — describes the life of a woman, also named Mãn. Mãn is born in Vietnam, abandoned at birth, taken in by a nun, and adopted by a new “Maman.” Maman is loving and instructive, patiently teaching Mãn the culinary traditions that Vietnamese women had been passing on to their daughters for generations. In her greatest act of love, Maman arranges for her daughter to marry an older man, a “boat person” who had fled Vietnam years before and settled in Montreal. As Mãn notes, “Unlike other Vietnamese mothers, who counted on the loyalty and gratitude of their children, Maman wanted me to forget, to forget her because I now had a chance to start again, to go away with no baggage, to reinvent myself.” In Montreal, Mãn relies on the ancient culinary traditions learned at Maman’s knee. They become a gateway to her new world and an anchor to her past. As Mãn takes over the dingy kitchen in her husband’s Vietnamese restaurant, she slowly begins to blossom. She takes command of the menu, makes friends, becomes a mother, writes a cookbook, brings Maman to Canada, travels to France, and only then falls in love. Remarkably, all of this activity is captured in a series of chapters that rarely extend beyond a single page. Yet as succinct as they are, these chapters resonate with profound imagery and emotion. They are replete with stories of joy and disappointment, of lost wars and lost fathers, broken hearts and broken promises, of simple acts of love and simple acts of kindness. Their one fault may be that they assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader of Vietnam’s politics and past. But this fault hardly detracts from the beauty of the prose and the story that it tells. That story is about how food sustains and sates the soul of a people. It is a story about the way that ingredients, carefully selected and considered, can combine to forge memory, connect family members, and cross cultures, generations and oceans.
It is a story that is ageless and universal, and exquisitely told.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
In Mãn, Kim Thúy borrows from her own experiences of exile and immigration.