The Vietnamese woman’s name Mãn means “perfectly fulfilled” or “there may be nothing left to desire.” The name is a curse for the central character in Kim Thúy’s newly translated work of fiction. Mãn is the second short novel from the Montreal-based Thúy to appear in English. The first, Ru (also translated by Sheila Fischman), was inspired by Thúy’s own flight from Vietnam as a child and her settling in Quebec. In its original French, Ru won a 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award; two years later, the English translation was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
In the new book, Mãn lives like a robot, neither happy nor sad. She does not even dream. An orphan in Vietnam, Mãn is raised by a single woman simply called Maman, who arranges to have her adopted daughter married off to a much older Vietnamese expat living in Montreal. Mãn meekly accepts the arrangement and moves to Canada, where she helps run her husband’s restaurant and, at night, performs her “wifely duties” without complaint or passion.
Then the Québécoise Julie enters the picture. The two women become like sisters, and Julie helps unveil the dreams Mãn did not even know she had. Says Mãn: “Life was coming at me like a canvas that Julie was unrolling before my eyes.” The two women open a cooking school and publish a wildly successful cookbook. Mãn goes to Paris, meets restaurateur Luc, and falls in love. Do they dare dream of a life together?
Read Mãn to find out. Read Mãn because it is a near-perfect gem of a contemporary fable. Thúy packs more into one short sentence than most authors do in a page. Ru was written as a series of linked vignettes that often read more like poetry than prose. Mãn is similarly constructed, but with an added twist: luscious descriptions of Vietnamese food on almost every page. (Thúy herself is a former restaurateur.) Vietnamese expats taste Mãn’s food and break into tears, overcome with memories of home.
Readers of Thúy’s sophomore novel in English will be enthralled by the extremely compact work’s literary and culinary treasures. They may leave hungry for more.