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 becomes a spy to survive. Seeking security for her grown daughter, Maman finds Mãn a husband–a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal. Thrown into a new world, Mãn discovers her natural talent as a chef. Gracefully she practices her art, with food as her medium. She creates dishes that are much more than sustenance for the body: they evoke memory and emotion, time and place, and even bring her customers to tears. Mãn is a mystery–her name means “perfect fulfillment,” yet she and her husband seem to drift along, respectfully and dutifully. But when she encounters a married chef in Paris, everything changes in the instant of a fleeting touch, and Mãn discovers the all-encompassing obsession and ever-present dangers of a love affair. Full of indelible images of beauty, delicacy and quiet power, Mãn is a novel that begs to be savoured for its language, its sensuousness and its love of life.
“Before her mother died, though she’d had time to learn how to extract the milk from a coconut by squeezing chunks of crumbled flesh saturated with hot water. When mothers taught their daughters how to cook, they spoke in hushed tones, whispering so that their neighbours couldn’t steal recipes and possibly seduce their husbands with the same dishes. Culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day. In the natural order, then, girls learned to measure the amount of water for cooking rice with the first joint of the index finger, to cut “vicious peppers” with the point of the knife to transform them into harmless flowers, to peel mangoes from base to stem so they won’t go against the direction of the fibres…”
It is very rare that you can find a book that reads like poetry. ‘Mãn’ by Kim Thuy is silky smooth and still fraught with a cultural thread that will leave you feeling enriched and wondering what you have been wasting your time reading all this time.
‘Mãn’ by Kim Thuy is translated from Vietnamese into English. To keep you on your toes, Thuy inscribes Vietnamese words in the corners of each page along with its English definition. She ensures the reader is immersed into Vietnamese culture while also providing a gentle framework to do your own work once her book has been read.
‘Mãn’ is a slow reveal and is keen to take you the long way around. Like small appetizers served on palate cleansing spoons, Thuy gives us snapshots into Mãn’s lifetime and leaves it to the reader to string together her fragile as rice paper motifs. Mãn is hardly a perfect heroine but rather a woman with insecurities, sadness and a need to keep her cultural roots well manicured.
“During the three days of my husband’s fever, I fed him, a mouthful at a time. In Vietnam, when we don’t know what has caused a death, we blame the wind, as if catching an impure wind could kill us. That’s why I asked him to take off his shirt so I could chase away the bad wind by scratching his back with a porcelain spoon moistened with a few drops of tiger balm. I had never looked at a man’s skin so close up. I drew his skeleton on it by rubbing between the bones and the length of his spine. Dark red blotches emerged on the surface, eliminating the heat and perhaps all the pains that had never been felt. I repeated those ancient movements to care for a stranger who had become my only anchoring point. I would have liked to know how to comfort him, run my hand over his skin. All I could do was warm him with the blanket that still smelled of the long journey from the Chinese factory to our apartment.”
‘Mãn’ is a perfect read for that hard to gift friend or family member. If they are a creative soul who likes to savour their reads and have debriefs on the writer’s process and deep characterization – ‘Mãn’ by Kim Thuy is for them.
If you need a challenge and want to start the New Year with a book that will inspire you, shake you at your knees and leave you in a state of wonderment, pick up ‘Mãn’ by Kim Thuy. It’s a must read.