There are some writers who make me think of the way painters work more than anything else. These kind of writers are not so much interested in plot as they are about building up characters or settings with layers of small details like Seurat or Monet. And, just like Impressionist paintings, books by painterly writers have to be viewed both closely and from a distance. Looking closely reveals details about how the writer is working; looking from a distance provides context. Without both perspectives, the meaning of the work gets lost. I’ve been thinking about this metaphor (which I know still needs work) since I finished reading Kim Thúy’s Mãn (translated by Sheila Fischman) last night. The novel is composed in very short chapters, most of them vignettes, that cover the life of the eponymous protagonist. These chapters reveal tensions in culture, gender, history, love, family, and fidelity.
Mãn tells us at the beginning of the book that she had three mothers. Mãn’s third mother, Maman, is a recurring figure throughout the book because she taught Mãn how to be a good Vietnamese girl, wife, and mother according to troubled upbringing. Everything Mãn is taught to be comes from her name:
[Mãn] means “perfectly fulfilled,” or “may there be nothing left to desire,” or “may all wishes be granted.” I can ask for nothing because my name imposes on me that state of satisfaction and satiety. (27*)
Maman grew up in a cruel home and came of age during the Vietnam War. It’s easy to understand that Maman wishes that her child, who she found in a field, would have everything she could ever ask for. And yet, Maman grew up in such a dangerous time that she thought it best to teach Mãn to be invisible but useful—as Mãn frequently describes herself.
We see Mãn enter an arranged marriage to an older emigré who runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. There, Mãn discovers that she has a talent for cooking. Her dishes remind her husband’s customers of what they left behind in Vietnam then, as her popularity grows, introduces Canadians to Vietnamese cuisine. With the help of a friend with much more ambition, Mãn becomes a successful caterer, cookbook author, and chef.
The more I read, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. No fictional character has that much good luck. And I was right. Mãn’s crisis comes when she suddenly falls in love with a biracial Vietnamese orphan in Paris. This relationship makes her both ecstatically happy and miserably lonely because it is so different from her relationships with her family. Mãn, even with all her success, kept up her habits of being invisible but useful. She gives, organizes, arranges, so that her husband and family want for nothing. They never have to ask. This is how Mãn was taught to love. But falling in love with Luc just showed her that everyone in her life is taking more from her than they are giving in return.
Part of what astonished me about this novel was the way that Thúy explores what happens when cultures are disrupted by war or transplantation to another continent. A lot of the meaning is lost. The subtext just disappears. For example, Mãn and Maman do not feel the need to explicitly show physical affection or say they love each other. Instead, Mãn tells us things like this:
[None] of the letters I’d written to Maman contained the three words “I miss you” or mentioned that I suffered from her absence. I had described to her the staggering number of shampoo brands in just one store because I hoped to pour water over her soapy hair again while she bent her head over the aluminum basin that we used for washing clothes. (104)
Passages like this one had me misty-eyed at the way mother and daughter could so subtly communicate their love for each other. Mãn does not have this with her husband, because he spent so much of his life outside of Vietnam. We don’t get to hear his perspective, but I suspect he thinks he won the matrimonial lottery with Mãn.
I found Mãn hauntingly beautiful. No words are wasted in this brief novel. I had to work to slow down and absorb what the book was trying to tell me instead of gobbling down the words the way I usually do. Thúy is simply brilliant.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who need to be reminded that mother-daughter relationships should be nurtured.
* Quotes are from the 2014 Random House kindle edition.