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Camilla Gibb’s previous novel, 2005’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Sweetness in the Belly, was set mostly in Ethiopia. For her newest work, the author turns her attention to Vietnam. The novel’s central character, Old Man Hung, is an itinerant pho seller in Hanoi who has forged an extended family from the son and grandson of an illustrious poet. Hung has honoured the poet’s memory since the latter disappeared after publishing a politically charged magazine in the 1950s.
One morning, Maggie, a curator at a posh hotel in the new Vietnam, appears at Hung’s cart searching for information about her father, a dissident artist who vanished after the fall of Saigon. Maggie serves as the catalyst in the lives of Hung, whose history involves a difficult and painful journey through Vietnam’s tumultuous past, and the young man Tu’, who has had a much easier life working as a tour guide for vacationing Westerners.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement starts slowly. Gibb carefully sets up the many strands of the story, shuttling back and forth from present to past. She also provides a primer on the city’s iconic soup; the reader comes to understand that the history of pho mirrors the history of Vietnam and the trajectory of Hung’s life. At one point, Hung is so impoverished he is forced to make his noodles out of pond grass.
The novel is full of book-club friendly themes such as lost love, forgotten memories, changing values, displacement, and family. These themes work for the most part, but certain details, such as the inclusion of the Vietnamese version of American Idol, feel more like convenient devices than necessary parts of the story.
Gibb brings The Beauty of Humanity Movement to a poignant close, reconnecting the story’s disparate strands. However, certain earlier scenes – such as one in which Hung returns to his village to find it decimated by his own country’s soldiers – don’t quite come alive, and as a result the emotion of the story occasionally gets lost.
“Gibb’s fictional portrait of contemporary Vietnam should be essential reading for anyone mulling a visit to Hanoi, whose profusion of motorbike traffic and culinary aromas issues from these pages with graphic verisimilitude.”
— The New York Times Book Review
"A bittersweet story of old lost love.... A debunker of stereotypes and a seeker of the big picture, [Gibb] isn’t satisfied with merely creating convincing characters and a bold plot. She educates and enlightens the reader whose grasp of Vietnam’s history and culture may be based on little more than the vague recall of old headlines."
— The Gazette (Montreal)
"[Gibb’s] latest work slips like silk into the psyche of contemporary Hanoi.... Gibb’s largely unadorned writing is rather like Hung’s pho, delicious for its austerity and complexities."
"Gibb ties the strands of narrative together in the same way that Hung makes his pho – with care, with gentleness and with reality. She employs all the senses to create a vivid aesthetic tapestry of the concrete, and then infuses it with the abstractions of family and ambition and respect for elders."
— The Globe and Mail
"Simply heartwarming.... Writing with grace and understanding, [Gibb] tells of years of oppression, poverty, artistic resistance, and finally, survival.... The book left me astonished."
— The Sun Times (Owen Sound)
"Gibb drapes her story over good strong bones—characters that span several generations, the nobility of the artists in contrast to the war and its political players. But the true beauty of the novel radiates from the details—the smell of the soup, the feeling of the early-morning streets, the sense of community in poverty and the community woven by memories."
— Los Angeles Times
“Gibb has created a fascinating portrait of modern Vietnam.... The collision between the personal and political, the overlapping of the characters’ stories and the tracking of their past and present lives reveal the human connections that unite us all.”
— The Independent (UK)
“Gibb has made a loving, wise, tender, dreamy and insightful work of fiction.”
—National Public Radio
“An intensive course in Vietnamese history, Gibb’s poised and thoughtful novel does not flinch from horror but is also open to the beauty of this scarred country.”
—The Guardian (UK)
Great book, especially as I am living in Vietnam, it brought so many things to life.Published 5 months ago by Lori Neil Fairbairn