The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: Maggie, now a young woman living in America seems to have left her heart (or bits of it) back home in Vietnam where she was born. She decides to return to her homeland to try and find out what happened to her father - but will any of the locals remember him?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1848877931

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When I read the Author's Note right at the end of the book, I was intrigued to learn that Very few Vietnamese novels have been translated into English. Both the title and the front cover illustration are exquisite, in my opinion. As if that wasn't enough The Times is fulsome in its praise for Gibb. I was salivating (metaphorically, of course) and I hadn't even started on Chapter One.

The novel opens with an elderly man as he scrapes a meagre living in Vietnam. He is really dirt-poor but I could tell that he still had his pride. He's not afraid of hard work. In fact, gruelling days of labour and very early risings have been the norm for him since he was a young boy. His passion is cooking. Nothing is too much trouble in order to create his famous Vietnamese noodle soup. And there's a terrific line on the back cover which says They say that the history of Vietnam can be found in a bowl of pho and Old Man Hu'ng makes the best in all Hanoi. We get some background on Hu'ng and discover that his life has been hard, very hard. But he doesn't complain, it's simply not in his nature. Such is the pull and the draw of Gibb's lovely, lyrical writing that I was drawn right into the life of this enchanting elderly man right from the start of the book. Gibb feeds us tiny morsels about Vietnam on a regular basis: the culture, the people, the troubled history for example, but it's written in such effortless prose that it's a joy to read. And her descriptions are so apt, so poetic and so original (but without being in your face) that it all shines on the page. I gobbled it all up.

But Gibb also gives her readers plenty of dismal scenarios as she describes life for the average Vietnamese person but it's still wrapped up in her wonderful style. It all works very well indeed. For instance, there's a piece telling us about the ups and downs of the availability of food. Often in the past Hu'ng was making his soup with the most basic of ingredients. But the point is, he still continued to make it. He could so easily have given up. I found him to be a generous-hearted individual with a lot of humility. Okay, the soup-making is his business, his means of survival but he takes it that step further and makes bowls for friends and neighbours on a regular basis.

Then we get a taste of the younger generation with their designer jeans and mobile phones and it comes as a bit of a shock. It all makes for very interesting reading indeed. And when Maggie (the main character) makes her appearance as she tramps the dirty streets and noisy back lanes of Vietnam, it adds yet another dimension to the novel. And through Maggie we get to hear the horrors her father suffered decades earlier. Torture - and worse - was not uncommon. Starvation was rife and we're told many heart-breaking episodes and mini-stories of life 'back then' when the people had to comply, had to toe the party line.

And as the plot develops, an unlikely friendship springs up. But it's also not without its problems. The title of the book is explained in the book and the explanation is delightful - and also thought-provoking. Gibb has written such an excellent story that she really had me thinking about a lot of things in connection with Vietnam. And while it is a work of fiction, the differences between the east and west are striking. Everything about this book is first-class. It was an absolute treat to read. Highly recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The End by Salvatore Scibona.

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