Camilla Gibb’s previous novel, 2005’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Sweetness in the Belly, was set mostly in Ethiopia. For her newest work, the author turns her attention to Vietnam. The novel’s central character, Old Man Hung, is an itinerant pho seller in Hanoi who has forged an extended family from the son and grandson of an illustrious poet. Hung has honoured the poet’s memory since the latter disappeared after publishing a politically charged magazine in the 1950s.
One morning, Maggie, a curator at a posh hotel in the new Vietnam, appears at Hung’s cart searching for information about her father, a dissident artist who vanished after the fall of Saigon. Maggie serves as the catalyst in the lives of Hung, whose history involves a difficult and painful journey through Vietnam’s tumultuous past, and the young man Tu’, who has had a much easier life working as a tour guide for vacationing Westerners.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement starts slowly. Gibb carefully sets up the many strands of the story, shuttling back and forth from present to past. She also provides a primer on the city’s iconic soup; the reader comes to understand that the history of pho mirrors the history of Vietnam and the trajectory of Hung’s life. At one point, Hung is so impoverished he is forced to make his noodles out of pond grass.
The novel is full of book-club friendly themes such as lost love, forgotten memories, changing values, displacement, and family. These themes work for the most part, but certain details, such as the inclusion of the Vietnamese version of American Idol, feel more like convenient devices than necessary parts of the story.
Gibb brings The Beauty of Humanity Movement to a poignant close, reconnecting the story’s disparate strands. However, certain earlier scenes – such as one in which Hung returns to his village to find it decimated by his own country’s soldiers – don’t quite come alive, and as a result the emotion of the story occasionally gets lost.