As complex and authentic as the best bowl of pho, The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a vivid portrait of contemporary Vietnam.
Camilla Gibb was born in London and grew up in Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University. Her third novel, Sweetness in the Belly, was a national bestseller, a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, and winner of the Trillium Award. Her novels have been translated into fourteen languages and published to rave reviews around the world. She lives in Toronto.
With its poignant look at various groups of people that suffered due to the communist regime in Vietnam, this book takes a broad look at Vietnam’s modern history through some believable and engaging characters. The setting, the characters and the ideas are not that of the west but they are that of humanity and together these elements draw us in.
Old man Hung, a simple peasant who has endured a lot, is one of the central characters and his simple behaviour and beliefs demonstrate a strength of character that is endearing. Even his feud with his neighbour is heart wrenching and touching. Maggie, the Vietnamese American and her search for answers to her father’s disappearance offers an interesting contrast to the Vietnamese Tu, who is unsure how to tread in this new world. The other characters are strong as well, the voice of various groups in this modern Vietnam are heard. The clash between modern and traditional is clear as the novel explores the conflict this causes within people. Through Gibb’s use of flashbacks, we are able to glimpse what it must have been like for those who dared to oppose a communist system that was far from the ideals it claimed to embrace. She gives a face to those that were re-educated or disappeared and explores the sorrow of those left behind. The title itself represents the real ideals of those in opposition to the government and gives hope to a modern reader.
With the new Australian curriculum encouraging the study of Asian literature, this is a novel that is definitely worth reading. I enjoyed this book and think it is an ideal text for a strong year 10 or a year 11 class. It is also a useful supplementary text for the Area of Study Belonging as it looks at various people and their sense of belonging.
Dianne Bond, Shoalhaven Anglican School, NSW
This is a book that revolves around a bowl of soup. Not just any soup, but pho, a traditional Vietnamese dish and a symbol of the essence of Vietnam. I adore a good bowl of pho myself. When I think of pho, I think of a few humble but busy pho vendors where people would happily queue for over an hour and sit at cramped tables just to get a taste of that pho. The smell of the beef would waft gently out of the shop and entice more people to join the queue, and become regulars. It was enchanting, addictive, simple and non-glamorous.
Camilla Gibb’s portrait of her Vietnamese pho vendor is very much of a humble world like this, but one that is compelling despite – or because – of its simplicity.
There is an easy East meets West storyline that provides a catalyst for comparisons and reasons for exposition on the Vietnamese culture and way of life. Old Man Hu’ng is a pho vendor with passion and skill. One day, among his patrons is an American woman named Maggie, who fled Vietnam many years ago and now returns to find out the secrets to her background. Her tour guide is Tu, a Vietnamese young man who finds himself tugged between his interests in Western ways and his Eastern culture. The friendship that grows between Hu’ng, Tu and Maggie, and the unravelling of Vietnamese culture and Maggie’s secrets is the subject of this story which is told with grace and simplicity.
Anyone interested in learning more about Vietnam would find The Beauty of the Humanity Movement a fascinating work. It brings alive some, possibly stereotypical, but nonetheless empathetic Vietnamese characters and explores topics such as morals and cultural norms, feelings about the Vietnamese war, and the everyday struggles of the more humble classes. The book would be useful in a classroom for secondary students when discussing the impact of the Vietnam war and the Vietnamese perspective on it, as well as topics such as cultural clashes and cultural progression and growth. Tu points out that while intellectuals may very well feel outraged at class struggles, they lack the ability to feel as the peasants do. Yet, the power that the intellectuals have to persuade, to draw support and so forth may be just what the peasants need. These problems and gaps between those who can truly empathise and those who have power and how they affect revolution could be worth discussing.
There is a simple love story in this as well, which grows slowly and makes us smile, but the book is mainly about discovery, friendship and appreciating Vietnamese culture. The characters grow on you – this is one of those few books where I did not feel that anyone was a villain. The main characters were very realistically drawn as people you wanted to know more about: People with difficulties, people who were trying to learn more about the world they lived in, people with humanity.
The book is written simply enough however it uses some offensive language and sexual imagery/descriptions of sexual behaviour and thus would not be recommended for younger children. It is suitable for secondary school students.
Rebecca Fung, NSW
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is the story of the rise of modern Vietnam as seen through the eyes of an old Pho seller Hung; Maggie, an American Vietnamese woman working in Hanoi cataloguing art works in a hotel and searching for information about her father; Tu, a Vietnamese man working as a tour guide with his friend Phoung. Primarily this is Hung’s story. He was sent away to Hanoi, as a young man, because his mother saw the birth mark on his face as a bad omen. He was apprenticed to his uncle to learn the art of Pho making. His story spans many years as wars come and go, the country is brutalised during the communist years and finally the transformation into modern Vietnam. From shop owner to street seller Hung’s main purpose in life was to feed his neighbours. Even when he had little else to make his soup from other than pond weed he still provided sustenance to his friends.
The story centres around Maggie’s search for information about her artist father who died during the communist years and sacrificed his life so that his wife and daughter could flee to America. She believes that Hung may hold the key to his past life. Hung recalls his days of selling Pho to a group of artists and poets such as Dao, who formed the Beauty of Humanity Movement and questioned the brutality of the regime and tried to maintain beauty in their lives with their words and art. Through serendipitous means old art works are found and memories are recalled. Hung’s memories are flimsy but it is his lost love and neighbour, Lan, who holds the key to further understanding. Eventually Hung forgives her for the errors of the past and it is she who recalls the poems written by Dao and the artists who worked with him.
Gibb weaves the story with such accuracy that you can picture the streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, imagine the stroll around Lake Hoan Kiem as lovers hold hands in the twilight, you can smell the fumes of the two stroke motorbikes and taste the delicious flavours of a bowl of pho.
Pho becomes an analogy for a good life, a life of balance, subtlety, of love and care and extracting the fats that would compromise the flavour and adding the key spices, lime juice and fish sauce that brings the whole dish together. So the book ends as balance is restored and like the component parts of a bowl of Pho all is right with the world, friendships have been made and love rekindled and life has more clarity.
Having travelled in Vietnam last year and with a great fondness for Hanoi, I adored this book. This is a book for older readers and adults as the narrative jumps around through the eyes of different characters. There is much historical information which gives excellent background to South East Asian studies and the political struggles from colonisation, warfare and the communist regime and now a blend of both. I would highly recommend the book for study in a VCE English class due to the strength of the characters, the themes of resilience and love, the quality of the writing and the historical information.
Sharon Marchingo, Crusoe 7-10 Secondary College, Victoria
Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement is one of those books that is just perfectly balanced. The setting is the world of the modern city of Hanoi, building sites, busy streets, the debris left by poverty, war, the rebuilding of Vietnam. There are two love stories. One is that between Maggie, the American born daughter of expat Vietnamese, and Tu, aspiring tour guide; and the other, that which takes decades to play out, the story of Hung and his lifelong neighbour Lan. The mixture of detailed, vivid lives and characters, real history, and the rich backdrop of the power of Art to transcend and transform time, politics, and poverty is effortless.
Gibb paints a rich background over decades by creating an elderly male protagonist, Hung, and by using the technique of the omniscient author as narrator, allowing us into Hung’s mind. Through him, we find ourselves learning the history of Vietnam at ‘grass roots’ level. Gibbs has a gift for characterisation, and creates a vivid myriad of characters, from the rather stiff art historian Maggie to staunch friends of Hung, Binh and Anh, a broad range of customers for the magical pho that Hung makes, and a wide range of other minor characters.
There is a ‘detective’ element to this book that is rather satisfying, as we really want Maggie to find evidence of her father in the Beauty of Humanity Movement, and at least some of the characters we have grown fond of to benefit from the ridiculous prices being paid for Vietnamese Art, and we also want Hung and Lan to have the happy ending that was always possible.
Helen Wilde, South Australia