Beauty in brevity

Thúy’s sopho­more novel thin but thrilling

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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.

VU QUANG PHOTO

In Mãn, Kim Thúy bor­rows from her own ex­pe­ri­ences of ex­ile and im­mi­gra­tion.

Mãn

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