Some books pull you into their worlds so effectively that readers feel the need to partake in some of the characters’ activities. It’s almost impossible to read Revolutionary Road without yearning for a drink. It’s equally difficult to read Camilla Gibb’s latest novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, without desperately looking for a Vietnamese restaurant.
Old Man Hung (Gibb will forgive my inability to use the Vietnamese alphabet, as she does) makes the best pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup) in Hanoi. While he did own a pho shop before the Communist regime and could own one again thanks to the free-market reforms of the 1980s, he cannot afford the rent or the bribe, so he walks around Hanoi, pushing his cart, finding incongruous locations to sell his soup. Among his faithful customers are Binh, the son of a revolutionary poet who used to haunt Hung’s shop, and Binh’s son, Tu. One morning, Maggie, a beautiful Viet Kieu (a Vietnamese living outside Vietnam) who fled Vietnam with her mother shortly before the Americans left, shows up and asks Hung about her long-lost father, Ly Van Hai, a painter who was never able to leave Vietnam. Her arrival sends Old Man Hung into a whirlwind of memories, evoking the days when part of the Vietnamese intelligentsia, the Beauty of Humanity Movement, gathered at his shop to dream of changing the world and publish underground literary magazines. Despite his failing memory, Old Man Hung is determined to help Maggie find out more about her father.
As with her previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, Gibb skillfully makes readers travel to a world that most know very little about. Though most readers might be more familiar with events taking place in South Vietnam and Saigon during the Vietnam War, fewer know of Hanoi, the Vietnamese intelligentsia that promoted Communism until they were sent to re-education camps, or the consequences of rural reforms. Confident in her writing, Gibb is not afraid to pull readers into this new world, plunging them into new realities without over-explaining Vietnam’s history. Deftly showing Vietnam as it was throughout its two wars (with France and then the U.S.) as well as how it is today—misery sharing the city with new-found wealth; young people devoted to honouring ancestors while worshiping knock-off Nike running shoes; corruption and a strong sense of community—Gibb creates a universe in which the characters live together with the reader, who doesn’t feel like an outside observer.
Given the way Gibb portrayed Vietnam, however, the happy ending seems a little far-fetched and not entirely satisfying. Yes, the characters pull together and find happiness, but how long will that happiness actually last? Like a big bowl of pho, the book is best enjoyed when taking the time to appreciate the nuance of each flavour.
Mélanie Grondin is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in carte blanche, Room, Nashwaak Review and other literary magazines. Mélanie is also associate editor at the Montreal Review of Books.