Mãn by Kim Thúy is a slip of a novel but looks can be deceptive – it’s a rich, melancholy tale about belonging.
Mãn has three mothers: the one who gives birth to her in wartime, the nun who plucks her from a vegetable garden, and her beloved Maman, who scarifies all that she can for her daughter.
‘In the distance, in the warm light, she saw me, and I became her daughter. She gave me a second birth by bringing me up in a big city, an anonymous elsewhere, behind a schoolyard, surrounded by children who envied me for having a mother who taught school and sold iced bananas.’
Maman finds Mãn a husband – a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal. Mãn discovers she has a natural talent for cooking and begins to create food that is more than just that – her dishes are her art, and her link to Vietnam.
Tears ran down his cheeks when I sprinkled his bowl with a small spoonful of pickled garlic. Eating that soup, he murmured that he had tasted his land, the land where he’d grown up, where he was loved.
Like other great works of foodie-fiction, much of the pleasure in Mãn comes from the enticing descriptions of food. But Thúy’s tempting descriptions evoke more than hunger pangs – they remind us that food and memories are inextricably linked. Meals with family and friends, or at particular places or events, give texture to memories. In Mãn’s story, her experience of love, independence and belonging are entwined with each intricately constructed dish that she serves. For example, of coconut and peanuts she says –
‘…two ingredients that in south Vietnam are served as much at dessert as at breakfast. I hoped to be able to serve and be a companion to my husband without disturbing anything, a little like flavours that are hardly noticed because they are ever-present.’
Thúy covers the theme of loneliness with the lightest of touches – dishes that remind people of their home country; the extreme experience of the immigrant, battling to understand a new language and culture; the singular isolation of motherhood; and the idea that sometimes being surrounded by people is the loneliest of experiences.
I had all of eternity because time is infinite when we don’t expect anything.
Although there was success in this story and Mãn had much to celebrate, there was also an underlying sadness – a feeling that she had lost something that will never be regained.
Mãn made a traditional braised chicken, gingko and lotus dish for her husband when he was ill –
‘I repeated those ancient movements to care for a stranger who had become my only anchoring point.’