What strikes you first when you begin to read Mãn (Random House, 2014) is its unique format. Each chapter of this slim novel reads like a long poem. The headings are unobtrusively displayed in English and Vietnamese. Most of the chapters are less than a page. They are vignettes, moments. Given their brevity, they are rich with description. Full of tastes and textures and carefully chosen words to show you a character. This is a book that will make you hungry.
Not just for the Vietnamese food that Mãn (the protagonist as well as the book’s title) cooks when she arrives in Canada, but Thúy’s words might stir in you a hunger for home, for comfort, for whatever is familiar to you. Even if that isn’t Vietnam or Montreal. Thúy evokes a longing for home and familiarity that is recognizable to anyone who’s lived and loved in more than one place.
When attempting to describe the plot of Mãn to someone recently, I faltered. This is not a plot-driven novel and what plot there is is mostly revealed on the back cover of the book. Mãn (whose name means “perfect fulfillment”) is an orphan, adopted by a Vietnamese mother amidst the upheaval of their country. She married a Vietnamese-Canadian and moves to Montreal. There she works in his restaurant and discovers her own passion for cooking, growing the business and expanding the food served. She gains a reputation as a skilled cook. She travels to France. She meets a man.
It sounds simple and it is. Yet much of the story lies in what Thúy doesn’t tell us. We never learn the names of Mãn’s husband or children. We never see a conversation or an intimate between her and her husband. We never learn her mother’s whole story or what their relationship was like after she arrived in Canada to live with Mãn and her husband. Thúy leaves much unsaid about the history of Vietnam and its people. Instead, tragedies are hinted at. The moment in which Mãn’s mother sees her father for the last time and doesn’t speak to him in order to protect him. A French man named Luc and his unremembered childhood in a Vietnamese orphanage and his mother’s refusal to speak of those years.
As a reader, you’re left feeling respected. Thúy isn’t here to give a history lesson but to offer one view. One slender window into one life and what can be.
*Because reading this in the original French would have taken me a year, I read the English translation by Sheila Fischman.