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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Beauty Of Humanity Movement

Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in modern day Vietnam. Old Man Hung, the central character, is an itinerant pho seller. He was the unwanted ninth child in his rural family and his mother sent him to live with his uncle in Hanoi where he learned to make pho, an aromatic broth with meat and noodles. His cafe catered to a group of artists and writers, who called themselves The Beauty Of Humanity Movement and it is Hung's cooking that drew and kept the group together. When the group became a target of the repressive communist regime in the 1950s Hung did not betray his friends like so many others did during that time.  He survives during hard times by making pho to feed his neighbours and customers.  Hung's commitment to creating good pho out of almost nothing keeps him alive when others fall victim to famine and political purges in Vietnam.  He works illegally from a cart that he pushes around, one step ahead of the authorities.

One of the disappeared artists has a son who viewed Hung as a surrogate grandfather. This son and his family are the only kin the old man has. Maggie is a young Vietnamese-American curator who has come to Hanoi to find out more about her father, an artist who had been tortured, and perhaps killed, for his political views. 

These characters have experienced Vietnam in very different ways but in the end they have more in common than they thought. 

It took time for the story to engage me but I enjoyed the second half even though the ending was a bit too  neat. I was left wondering how an Anglo Canadian writer could capture the nuanced history of Vietnam so well and was pleased when an explanation of how Gibb came to write this novel was included at the end.  

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