[Less than a week ago I said: “I’m not going to buy any more books until I’ve finished reading all the books I already own.” Well, I already failed. Yesterday evening, after watching the movie Genius, I felt inspired to visit my local bookstore and I found Kim Thúy’s second novel, Mãn. Earlier this year I read her first novel, Ru. It is one of those rare novels I find myself returning to, flipping through the pages to glean inspiration. I was immediately drawn to Thúy’s exquisite stylistic choices and poetic language, so to not buy Mân (used nonetheless) would surely cause my bookshelf a great deal of grief. So Mãn came home with me and I’ve spent the greater part of the morning devouring these 139 pages.]
Mãn: written by Kim Thúy and translated by Sheila Fischman
This is a story that moves between worlds. It moves as fluidly as the water that exists between them. A patchwork of flashbacks introduces the reader to Canada and to Vietnam, and to Thúy’s newest protagonist, Mãn, whose identity is shaped by her attachment to these two countries. At once delicate and wistful, Mãn is replete with zeal and potent imagery.
We are immediately introduced to Mãn’s Maman, a woman who seeks to find Mãn a husband and who, in her attempt to provide Mãn a better life, encourages Mãn to forget. Thus the story begins with a question that seeks to unveil the relationships between duty, love and stability, between the meaning of family and location.
They only promised not to forget. Unlike other Vietnamese mothers, who counted on the loyalty and gratitude of their children, Maman wanted me to forget, to forget her because I now had a chance to start again, to go away with no baggage, to reinvent myself.
As the story is propelled forward, the reader witnesses Mãn become exposed to the layers and complexities associated with love, a love she does share with her husband but rather develops upon meeting a Parisian chef. The novel opens with Mãn’s introduction to her husband, a man to whom she dutifully and respectfully offers her body and services but to whom she cannot offer her heart. Void of the clichés so commonly found in love affairs, Thúy has navigated Mãn’s emotions and engagements carefully and masterfully, evoking in the reader a sense of empathy and perhaps, even, longing.
Thúy’s novel is one to be savoured. Each page appeals to the senses, is luscious and demanding. The details are embedded with exactness and Thúy manages to infuse the narrative with the smells and sights of Vietnamese dishes, meanwhile her details are far from distracting. Instead, they contribute to Mãn’s growth and contemplation, evoking memories and emotions that speak to Mãn and Maman’s pasts. Thus, the present and the past are woven together delightfully. At times, one becomes lost between the slender country of Vietnam and the turbulent city of Montreal, suspended by the smell of baguettes stuffed with bananas, soaked in coconut and cow’s milk.
Mãn is an exploration of the limitations of obedience and memory. Can one’s history, one’s desire to preserve harmony, become a something of a carapace? Protective and a part of one’s self? By adhering to one’s ideal, is one’s identity further developed or does it become restrained by choices that are calculated and prudent? Thúy considers these questions in what is, ultimately, a book that begs to be read.
About Kim Thúy: Thúy has worked as a seamstress, a lawyer, a chef and a restaurant owner. She is an award winning novelist whose first novel, Ru, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the GrandPrix RTL/Lire, the Grand Prix du Salon du Livre de Montréal and was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize among others.
Thúy left Vietnam when she was ten years old and is currently living and writing in Montreal.