It's Amy Tan-tastic. Sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Actually that is a horribly small minded thing to say about this novel but it will be written about The Beauty of Humanity Movement I guarantee. Why? Well not because both of these novels are outstanding. It will be written because Beauty interweaves the life stories of several characters of Vietnamese extraction throughout it's plot therefore what else is there for it to be compared to but an Amy Tan novel that unites the life stories of several generations of Chinese and Chinese-American characters? You have to keep all the Asian novels together right?
This is a beautifully written and atmospheric novel by Camilla Gibb. Beauty is set in contemporary Vietnam but encompasses a hard look at the cost of the last seventy years of Vietnam history through the eyes of three individuals. In Hanoi, Old Man Hung’s pho is famous. Pho is a soup that is “a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French” and that combination of cultures and conquerors says a lot about the search for identity in this novel. Hung has spent his life selling his pho, surviving poverty and political upheaval. Hung has lives through French colonization, Japanese occupation, Chinese occupation and now the Capitalism occupation. In the 1950's Hung had a successful cafe and a soft spot for the dissident artists and intellectuals he let use his place for secret meetings. Now the 80 year old sells his delicious masterpiece from an old cart constantly dodging the police.
Hung's noodle shop is one of a young man named Tu's favorite places. Tu' is the grandson of one of Hung's old radical friends. He works in a relatively new industry in Vietnam. He is a tourist guide for a company called New Dawn. Tu' spends his days pointing out the sights and wondering what his tourists, especially the repentant American Vets, are really seeing in his country. Maggie has also found Hung's pho and Tu'. She was born in Vietnam but raised in the U.S. She has come back to her unwelcoming birthplace in search of the artist Father she cannot truly remember. In order to stretch the bits of memory she has about her Father Maggie will need the Vietnam of Hung's past and the modern Vietnam of Tu'.
Gibb captures the culture, smells and history of a nation that has all three in spades. Her descriptions of the food alone make me yearn for a Vietnamese restaurant to open up next door immediately. In The Beauty of Humanity Movement food and suffering seem to be the only constants in Vietnam over the last one hundred years. Camilia Gibb has taken a time honored plotline, searching for your roots, and by placing it in a country as young and as old as Vietnam has infused a freshness and complexity that had me enthralled.
P.S. The Beauty of Humanity Movement was first published in Canada last year. Here's their cover. I love it, as I love the U.S. cover but they are so similar I have to wonder why the change at all? Then I look a little closer and I see that the Canadian cover references the past and the present. I like that.
You win this one Canada.