This slim, very beautiful novel is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language. Its gorgeous, colourful jacket suggests something pulsing and tropical but although that was partly what attracted me to it in the first place the writing is infinitely more subtle, shading into more variations of pearlescent grey that could be imagined. It’s the story of Mãn who leaves Vietnam and the woman who adopted her for Montreal to marry a man she does not know – a match made for security but not for love.
Mãn has had not one mother but three: the woman who gave birth to her, the nun who ‘plucked me out of a vegetable garden among the okra’ and Maman who cares for her and raises her, and who fought in the resistance during the war. No one knows who her father is but gossips dwell on her pale skin and her rounded limbs. She grows into womanhood at a time when memories of the war run deep – a high price is still being paid. Concerned about her future in a country where family is all and no one thinks twice about quizzing you on your roots, Maman tells Mãn that it’s best for her to marry and finds an older man, a cafe owner from Montreal who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés far from their homeland, men who long for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes and when she meets Julie, the warm-hearted Canadian ‘merchant of happiness’ who becomes her big sister – mother number two to her children – the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published, a TV show made, and Mãn finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings, and where passion never experienced before suddenly strikes.
Told in short vignettes, word pictures threaded through with memories of Vietnam, Mãn delicately unfolds her story piercing her readers’ hearts as she does so. Language is paramount in this exquisitely nuanced novel where even the narrator’s name and its meanings is significant: ‘“perfectly fulfilled” or “may there be nothing left to desire” or “may all wishes be granted”’. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout the book: Mãn introduces new dishes slowly ‘One memory at a time, because it took me a lot of effort not to let my emotions overflow on the plate.’ Her attenuated life and the warmth infused into it by Julie are beautifully described: ‘Life was coming at me like a canvas that Julie was unrolling before my eyes.’ For Mãn, who learnt her childhood French from the pages of novels used as wrapping paper for food, the language of home and all its subtleties is lost when she moves to Canada, and this loss is achingly underlined by the single word that accompanies each vignette translated into Vietnamese. The passion that explodes in this woman who has been taught ‘to avoid conflicts, to breathe without existing, to melt into the landscape’ is a revelation but even here, language is important: ‘Like a Sherpa, he guided me through the bends and curves, the twists and turns of the French language, undressing it layer by layer, one subtlety at a time, like stripping a rose of its petals’. It’s lovely, a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times, each time uncovering fresh nuances – and it’s an astonishing achievement by its translator, Sheila Fischman.
With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical descriptions of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt at times. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its descriptions. Perhaps it’s a style characteristic of Vietnamese writing in which case I must seek out more of it.