Opening with itinerent pho maker Old Man Hung finding the latest in a never-ending series of places to sell his fragrant broth, the reader is introduced to this man who had once been the center around whom an arts movement once flourished and the two men amongst his regulars, father Binh and son Tu, who have become the closest thing he has to a family. Into Hung's regular existence comes art curator Maggie Ly, a Viet Kieu, born in Vietnam but raised overseas (America in Maggie's case). Maggie is searching for any sign of her father's past but she has only hit dead ends until she finds Old Man Hung and a faint glimmer of hope. Maggie's presence and her inquiry about her father, an artist who escaped a reeducation camp with his hands permanently crippled, jolts Hung back into his past.
Hung's pho shop had, in the years immediately following the war, been a meeting place, an anchor, for the Beauty of Humanity Movement group of artists who daringly questioned the path the country was taking. Dao, Binh's father and Tu's grandfather, had been at the forefront of the movement, insisting on using artwork and poetry revolutionarily. But the group went too far and they were betrayed, Hung lost his shop, and Binh lost his father. With the opening up of Vietnam, Maggie has come in hopes of finding a trace of her father, most likely in this group of determined artists and poets who stood by their convictions even in the face of harassment and arrest.
The narrative is triple-stranded, focused on Hung's memories of the past and of all those who died, Maggie's history and search for proof of her father's life before her, and Tu's sanitized or narrowly focused history of Vietnam offered in the course of his job as a tour guide for Westerners. All three of these threads are important to the tale although Hung's have perhaps the most weight as they tie everything together; the past informs the future. The writing is patient, unfolding slowly, revealing the smallest of historical information carefully and almost secretively. Descriptions are vivid and full although occasionally a bit much. Like Hung's pho, Gibb's novel is simple, well-balanced, and satisfying as well as saving room for the unexpected to pull all the flavors together into a seamless whole. Book clubs looking for a very different perspective on the Vietnam War and its long-term effect on the Vietnamese people will find much to discuss and enjoy here.
For more information about Camilla Gibb and the book visit her webpage and her facebook page.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.