Book review: Man by Kim Thuy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm

by Kim Thuy
The Clerkenwell Press

If you are a foodie who enjoys poetry, you'll probably love this slim volume. Its unusual format - each chapter is little more than a page and presented almost as a poem - make it easy to dip into.

Kim Thuy's Man is a book to be savoured much like the delicate flavours of the Vietnamese cuisine that dominates the story.

We learn Man's story through snapshots of her life. First we discover she has three mothers: her biological mother, the nun who found her abandoned in a vegetable patch, and the one who raised her.

It is this third mother, eager to secure a better life for Man, who orchestrates an arranged marriage for her. Man's new husband is a lonely soul who lives in Montreal, Canada.

Longing for home and keen to make a connection with her new husband, Man begins to cook in his restaurant and soon discovers she has real talent in the kitchen.

There is no fiery plot that drives this novel. It reads more like a journal, an intimate account of a life where key facts - names, backstories - are left unsaid. As anyone who has spent time in Vietnam will know, tragedy is never far from any one family and Man has her tales of woe, but the pain is just hinted at.

In a single-page snapshot, a poignant vignette, Man's mother sees her father for the last time and doesn't call out to him or acknowledge him to protect him.

One of the beautiful, poetic, touches to the book are the chapter headings at the start of each section, written in both Vietnamese and English - such as "tinh ban/ friendship".

The story is all about the interplay of language, food and memory, a trio that Thuy merges and handles skilfully.

The only thing missing in Man's life is love. As her passion for cooking grows, so does the business. She produces a cookbook and travels to France where she has an affair with a married chef, experiencing love and passion for the first time.

The dreamy nature of the text, as though it's a story whispered in your ear as you fall asleep, works with the introspective style of storytelling. It may not be immediately hard-hitting in terms of plot, but it packs an emotional punch.

The real joy is in savouring the descriptions of the dishes being prepared - a reminder that food is about so much more than filling our bellies, it's so infused with memory and culture and stories of home, aspects that Thuy handles with great sensitivity.

A note of caution: if this is your bed-time reading, don't be surprised if you get the munchies and end up raiding the fridge.