Quill and Quire

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Simple Recipes

by Madeleine Thien

In the title story in this collection a father cooks for his family with meticulous love, weighing out the rice in his fingers, frying the fish that only a short time before was still swimming. Yet when his son chokes furiously on the food, the father beats him. How to reconcile such contradictions and still love?
This exquisite – and exquisitely painful – story is seen through the eyes of a child, as are most of the other seven stories here. Sometimes there is a brother, sisters. Sometimes the parents are immigrants from Malaysia or Indonesia. The mother is diligent, working herself to exhaustion, the father loving, hopeful, worried. Or sometimes the mother is crazy, drunk, dying, disappearing in some way or another. The child comes to recognize that she cannot accept the burden of her parents’ hopes, or take responsibility for others’ bitter disappointments, and yet is burdened all the same with an unshakeable sadness.
Thien won the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop Emerging Writer award for fiction for the manuscript of this, her first book. These finely crafted stories are about learning to live with grief, to move beyond it. They are about finding how to hope when all the hope these young eyes have seen has been slowly extinguished. The last story, “Map of the City,” the longest at 66 pages, charts the dissolution of an immigrant family. The descent is inexorable: we want to shout, Do something! Then the cumulative grief is quietly, miraculously leavened by the persistent strength of family, and love.
Sensuous and concrete, these stories feel near-perfect. The reader may hope that by writing them, Thien has played out some of the pain behind them, and will begin to soar.