THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT by Camilla Gibb
“Maggie can relate. While she might look Vietnamese, this only gets her so far. She has had shopkeepers quadruple their prices as soon as she opens her mouth, people mock her accent, gossip behind her back and treat her with a great deal of suspicion. They call her Viet Kieu – some watered down and inferior species of Vietnamese – a sojourner, an exile, a traitor, a refugee. However people might regard her, Maggie has to content herself with the knowledge that her roots are here, the family stories, as remote and inaccessible as they might be.”
Review by Bonnie Brody В (APR 2, 2011)
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb is a very interesting novel situated in Hanoi, Vietnam. Its timeframe is the present but the novel also deals quite a bit with the 1950’s and 1960’s, providing an extensive history of the country. The Beauty of Humanity Movement refers to a group of artists, poets, and writers who all gathered around Hung’s pho cart in the 1950’s and 1960’s before they were arrested, re-educated or killed by the communists.
As the story opens, Hung is an old man who wheels his pho cart from place to place. He can’t afford legitimate rents and he can’t afford the illegitimate rents where one pays someone else off in order to have a set space in which to park daily. Hung is a legend. He is part of the original Beauty of Humanity Movement and is said to make the best pho in Hanoi. Pho is a type of noodle soup that must have the perfect blend of spices and other ingredients. Lately, however, Hung’s memory is going and it is only off and on. One day he forgets to put the coriander in the soup. He is so poor that his only pair of sandals are wearing through.
Maggie is a Viet Kieu, a Vietnamese who was exiled and raised out of her country. In Maggie’s case, she grew up in the United States. Her father was part of the Beauty of Humanity Movement and was lost to Maggie and her mother. No one knows what happened to him and Maggie has returned to Vietnam to try and find him. This part of the novel is a bit vague as the only clue she has is Hung, and he is not much help to her due to his faltering memory. He tells Maggie that her father’s name is familiar but he is not truly sure.
Dai was the leader of the Beauty of Humanity Movement. His son, Binh, is still alive. An interesting story is associated with Binh. When the Vietnamese tried to conscript him for the war back in the 1960’s, his mother poked his eye out rather than let him serve in the army. She’d rather have a half-sighted son than risk his death. Binh’s son is Tu. Tu serves, along with his friend Phong, as a tour guide. Interestingly, they are Maggie’s tour guides.
Maggie is a museum curator who is interested in seeing the artist studios and visiting with the artists currently working in Hanoi. Vietnamese art is now a big thing and collectors around the world are wanting more and more of it. Some of the art is very dramatic and some is very sexually explicit. The sexuality in the art grosses Tu out and he tells Maggie that he can no longer be her tour guide.
What is particularly interesting in this novel is the history of Vietnam, not well known to me and probably not to very many others. I learned about the communists, Ho Chi Minh, the French occupation and how the Vietnamese were the slaves of one group or another. Speaking up against the politics in vogue at the time meant taking your life in your hands.
There are also two backdrop love stories in the novel. One involves Hung’s love for Lan when he was a young man and the other is Tu’s increasing attraction to Maggie though he is a true innocent.
While the premise of the novel is fine and the writing is excellent, it just doesn’t fall into place as I would have liked it to. It jumps from here to there, often without reason, and the only center that keeps it united is Hung. It would have been better if the characters had more development and the story was more cohesive. Despite all this, I found it a fascinating read, one that educated me and kept me interested. The author is a wonderful story teller and gives the reader a lot of material for the 300 page length of the book.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 3 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Penguin Press HC, The (March 17, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Camilla Gibb|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
Beyond Illusions by Duong Thu Huong
- Mouthing the Words (2001)
- Petty Details of So-So’s Life (2002; 2004 in US)
- Sweetness of the Belly (2006)
- The Beauty of Humanity Movement (March 2011)