Reading has been on the back burner, except for the book group book, for the last couple of weeks as I have been trying to get the garden, and also the garage, back into order.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Hanoi Vietnam, in the present and from the perspective of the North. The author, Camilla Gibb, has a social anthropology background and has, no doubt, used her research skills, both in the literature and amongst the Vietnamese diaspora, to produce an authentic sounding portrayal of the city and its history.
The plot is driven by Maggie, a Vietnamese-American woman who is searching for relic of her father, who was a member of the fleeting intellectual movement that emerged just after the Viet Minh victory over the French in 1954. She becomes a catalyst for changes in the characters she encounters, especially Hung the street vendor who “makes the best phô in the city” and Tu, the somewhat buttoned up tourist guide.
Phô, the iconic Vietnamese soup, is the real hero of the novel, as its contents and quality, as prepared by Hung, mirror the tragic history of Vietnam from colonial times through the brief period of hope in independence, the brutal collectivisation, the American war to the current liberalisation. These are narrated in flashbacks, by Hung as he tries to recall any details of Maggies’s father. None of the characters are developed beyond their role in reaching the denouement, which itself seems rather contrived. The language is spare (that’s a compliment) and the author has a good ear, can write some eloquent and moving passages but the characters are too symbolic to be really convincing.
The making of phô is a long and complicated affair of developing subtle flavours in the broth. Some recipes call for the addition of sugar. It is unfortunate that the author has ladled in a large dollop at the end.