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book review

Kim Thuy’s latest book metes out the friction of one woman’s life in careful prose.Vu Quang Van

In Bad Feminist, her collection of essays published earlier this year, American writer Roxane Gay says, "I enjoy fairy tales because I need to believe, despite my cynicism, that there is a happy ending for everyone," before adding, "The older I get, though, the more I realize how fairy tales demand a great deal from the woman." Gay's essay, or at least these relevant excerpts from it, could serve as the foreword for Kim Thuy's 2013 novella Mãn, translated this year from French by Sheila Fischman.

Mãn, narrated by its titular protagonist, is a story of realism told like a fable. It opens with such enigmatic lines, "Maman and I don't look like one another… She has a hole in her calf and I have a hole in my heart." Maman, it is immediately revealed, is Mãn's third mother; her birth mother was young, unwed, with "a hole in her head," her second mother, a nun with "a hole in her faith."

A mother figure without biological ties to the female protagonist is a conceit familiar to old fairy tales, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Thuy (early on, she calls out the evil-stepmother trope directly in describing Maman's own tumultuous childhood, naming Snow White, Cinderella, and "all the other orphaned princesses"). Yet Maman's relationship with Mãn is nothing but loving and nurturing. Mãn lives out the superficial plotlines of a fairy-tale princess. She is an orphan with skin "like a French doll's" and red lips, eventually arranged in marriage to a man most charming and promised, with him, a happily ever after, far away from her native Vietnam in the foreign world that is Montreal, Canada.

Mãn's new life is one of contentment; Thuy is too subtle a writer to create such a simple duality between the purity of Mãn's homeland and the strangeness of the Western world. Mãn adapts. She makes acquaintances and at least one close friend. She has two children and a placid, drama-free relationship with her husband. More than anything else, she finds fulfilment through her burgeoning career as a chef, throwing herself into her work, introducing versions of the meals she grew up with to a new audience that responds with intrigue and delight. It's a simple, serene life, fit for the epilogue of a Disney movie.

Things change when, while travelling for work, Mãn meets Luc, a very married Parisian chef who ignites within Mãn a passion she never knew was possible, especially with her husband. Mãn was never a passive character, but she is a woman who was raised with the awareness of how harsh the world could be, and always chose to ignore the battles not worth fighting. With Luc, she is forced out of her reverie and into a life of intense feeling that she had never been trained to handle.

Thuy's work has the sparseness of an old story by the Brothers Grimm, in which entire wars and lives can be summed in a couple of lines and yet a brief moment can be made to linger. The book is divided into fragments rather than chapters, with each section averaging only a paragraph or two, rarely going on longer than a page. And though the events occur in mostly linear fashion, it is never a book with an urgency to its plot. It's a text with no superfluous words, where every line is given an equal weight, demanding as much, if not more, attention than the book as a whole.

This is because, despite its sparseness, Thuy embeds her work with a lyricism that separates it from the bare-bones stories of the fairy tales that her work evokes. So much of the way in which Mãn tries to make sense of her new home is through the subtle, if at times absurd, complexities of languages, particularly the relationship between Vietnamese and French (the nuances of which Fischman does as good a job as any in translating). Rather than chapter headings, each section is given a key vocabulary word in both English and Vietnamese that sum up the essence of that passage. The choices range from everyday common words to the obscurely poetic, perhaps the most prescient example of weightiness individual words, any words, can retain, both within larger contexts and stripped bare and left alone.

In an early passage that recounts Maman's childhood, it's revealed that at the insistence of her own father, she had memorized and could recite at will Truyen Kieu, a lengthy poem about a girl who sacrifices herself to save her family. "Some say that as long as the poem still exists, no war can make Vietnam disappear," says Mãn. The poem provides a comfort to Maman's father, further illuminating the debt that all cultures owe to their shared stories, be they poems or prose, shared truths or folklore, thousands of lines in length or summed up with one key word. Though Mãn recognizes the power held in fairy tales, it also recognizes the ways in which the form falls short, and where other modes of storytelling can be brought in to pick up the slack.

Anna Fitzpatrick is a writer, editor and bookseller based in Toronto.

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