Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her.
When mothers taught their daughters how to cook, they spoke in hushed tones, whispering so that neighbours couldn’t steal recipes and possibly seduce their husbands with the same dishes. Culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day. In the natural order, then, girls learned to measure the amount of water for cooking rice with the first joint of the index finger, to cut “vicious peppers” with the point of the knife to transform them into harmless flowers, to peel mangoes from base to stem so they won’t go against the direction of the fibres…
Maman finds Mãn a husband. Originally from Saigon, he’d lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before going to Montreal. After three dates in four days, he has to return to Canada but – in a very blunt, almost entirely one-sided conversation – says he will send the paperwork and they will have children.
Before the point when Mãn joins him, Thúy takes us back to Maman’s experience in the Vietnamese Revolution. Thúy conveys the turning upside down of Maman’s life in six short powerful pages which conclude with the last time Maman saw her father.
Mãn tells us she doesn’t know who her father is but the gossips suspect he’s white as she has pale skin and a ‘delicate nose’. She tells us her name means
“perfectly fulfilled” or “may there be nothing left to desire” or “may all wishes be granted” I can ask for nothing more because my name imposes on me that state of satisfaction and satiety.
When she arrives in Montreal, Mãn finds a space between her new home and her old one in the timelessness that seems to exist in her husband’s restaurant kitchen. As the restaurant becomes more and more successful and the business grows, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and her name no longer suits her:
The mistake followed from that second-too-long when my fingerprints had time to become imbued with his. Could I have done otherwise? I had the hand of a child and his was a man’s, with a pianist’s fingers, long and enveloping, whose grip commands and reassures. If my jaw had not been locked and my arms linked, I might have quoted these lines by Rumi that had suddenly appeared in my head:
A fine hanging apple
in love with your stone,
the perfect throw that clips my stem.
Mãn feels like a quiet book. It’s unassuming and very measured but oh so powerful. The language Thúy – and, of course, Fischman – chooses is both beautiful and surgical. Indeed the climax of the novel hangs on the power of language and communication and choosing the right word in the right situation.
Thúy separates the story into vignettes, some as short as a paragraph, others no longer than three pages. That these are so effective demonstrates the power of her writing but there’s also a danger in being able to read them so quickly and miss savouring the language. (Although you could always do what I did and go back and read it again.)
Through the use of first person narration and the amount of time Thúy uses to build up to the affair, we’re drawn to sympathise with Mãn. This is interesting: a woman with two children whose husband appears to be reasonable, if maybe lacking passion, embarking on an affair across two continents. And yet, I found myself rooting for her despite seeing what the consequences might be. It’s a beautifully written and emotionally engaging novel. Highly recommended.