How do the people in a country that has undergone years of colonialism adapt and express themselves? I’m fresh from an evening of book talk and eager to grab what I recall.

Camilla Gibb’s prizewinning novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, provided fine fodder for our editors’ group book club tonight. We had great book chat in a comfy living room before a fire. So satisfying! The book is primarily told from the viewpoint of the old man, who prides himself on making excellent pho…the noodle soup that starts everyone’s day in Vietnam.

But Gibb, although she includes plenty about food in the current popular way, also explores the various ways people in a long- and multiply oppressed country find to express themselves. Sharing of food, particularly in a desperately poor community, is a key motif. Some characters maintain careful courtesies and customs such as shrines at home.

One young man moves between respect for the old and the pull of becoming educated and struggling for a better job. Another, his friend, rejects Vietnamese traditions and attempts to become a Hanoi hipster and rap artist, but he is painted as more torn,heavy drinking and unhappy. The old man scrambles for tiny and unusual scraps of food–even rat–to put in his pho, to feed both his early-morning paying customers and his desperately hungry shantytown neighbours, who can pay him only with occasional scrounged bits of things.

So Gibb uses these main characters to outline the struggles in Vietnam, the personal and political. It’s a multilayered tale and a bit hard to follow at times, but a fascinating read. The characters’ heaves and switches and changes are drawn as parallel to those in the current culture of Vietnam. There’s also the moral tale of the importance of sharing and community. This is the kind of optimism that brings readers through to the other side of a book; it’s what we seek.

Gibb apparently only visited the country while on an Asian book promotion tour, and was inspired to write a deeply researched novel.

And thanks to our host, who provided us with pho to start the discussion. I may have to borrow that idea. My turn to pick the next book….

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