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review: fiction

Camilla GibbFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Camilla Gibb's previous novel, the Scotiabank Giller Prize short-listed Sweetness in the Belly, with its examination of Lilly, a white Muslim woman in Ethiopia and London, flew off bookstore shelves, and it's likely that The Beauty of Humanity Movement will as well. Gibb's education as a social anthropologist informs her fiction; the setting of this new novel is Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, and Gibb has done her research into the political upheavals and customs of the Vietnamese.

The main character is an elderly man named Hung, who has scratched out a living through all the years of war and deprivation. He was the ninth child of an unloving mother who sent him away to his uncle in Hanoi in 1933, and his uncle teaches him how to make pho, the noodle-laden broth that Vietnamese often eat for breakfast. Hung survives by continually relearning new ways to make pho to feed his neighbours and customers, even when people are so hungry they are eating their own lice. Hung's pho is famous in his circle: As he says, "You can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose." Hung's desire to make the best pho he can under the most trying of circumstances indicates his perseverance and pleasure in feeding people.

The oppression of the Communist rule comes through clearly, and much of the effect of the novel comes from the difference between how Hung has lived and how his adoptive family, especially 22-year-old Tu, lives after capitalism takes over the country. Tu is a math whiz who "has made the depressing discovery that loving math was a very different thing from loving teaching it." So he quits his job and becomes a guide in the new world of Vietnam, hoping to profit from the tourism industry along with his friend Phuong, a former music teacher who has dreams of winning Vietnam Idol. The Vietnamese may have fought the Americans, but the young Vietnamese appear to revere all things American, in particular popular culture.

The Vietnam War (or American War, as it's called in Vietnam) was won by the Vietnamese, but capitalism was the real winner. And the Vietnamese are definitely a hard-working people, whose struggles to cope with the immense challenges facing them are described by Gibb with sympathy and clarity.

Another main character is Maggie Ly, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States. Maggie works in Hanoi as an art curator, but her goal is to make contact with someone who knew her father, an artist who sent his wife and child to the safety of the U.S. while remaining in Vietnam and facing possible re-education because of his political beliefs, including the fictional Beauty of Humanity Movement (which is loosely based on real events). Maggie has heard that a pho seller may have known her father, and so she ends up visiting Hung's pho cart, hoping to discover something about her father.

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. Tu, for example, sees Hung as his grandfather, and while the old man has refused for years to live with Tu and his parents, Tu knows that any woman he plans to marry will have to respect and love Hung as much as he does.

In Sweetness in the Belly, food, politics, religion and love are at the centre of the novel, and Gibb maintains this focus in The Beauty of Humanity Movement. Food comes and goes, political systems change, religion offers solace and difficulties, and love is lost and gained.

The concepts may result in a bit of a formula, but it's one that works, especially in this novel because of the addition of art - both poetry and visual art - and because of the essential humanity of the characters. Their flaws are evident, but Gibb chooses to create appealing figures who, in most cases, do what they can to help their fellow human beings. Perhaps that's idealistic, but seeing such hope in the face of such adversity is uplifting.

It's the connections between people that matter, and making Hung the main character is extremely effective, as he is at the centre of so much. His lifetime spans enormous changes in Hanoi, and his form of art - making pho - is truly remarkable. Gibb has created her own "Beauty of Humanity," and at the heart is the talented and loving Old Man Hung.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.

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