London born, Toronto-based novelist Gibb (Sweetness in the Belly, 2006, etc.) focuses her latest novel on a group of dissident 1950s artists and what the ruthless regime did to them.
In Vietnam, food and revolution have always entwined; even Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef in Paris before he came home and eventually seized control of the fledgling nation. So it's fitting that this novel features at its center the delicious beef noodle soup called pho. The pivotal figure here is Hu'ng, an octogenarian in failing health who's still selling his old-recipe pho to a group of fanatically dedicated customers, but now in an itinerant way, dodging cops as he works from a battered cart. A half-century earlier, when Hu'ng still had his cafe, it became the hangout of a group of artists and intellectuals that Gibb, embroidering on the real story of a similar group, calls the Beauty of Humanity Movement. Enter a young Vietnamese-American woman, Maggie Ly, who left with her mother just before Saigon fell, and whose father they had to leave behind, presumably to a quick death. Maggie grew up in Minnesota, and she's returned—as curator of a luxury hotel's vast collection of indigenous art—largely to see if she can find out anything about her father, an American-educated artist who before her birth was tortured and maimed by the government, and who turns out to have been part of the Beauty of Humanity intellectuals. The other crucial figure, a bridge between young "foreigner" and old cook, is a tour guide named Tu' who has, with his father, been one of Hu'ng's most faithful customers. Gibb provides extravagantly sensuous accounts of the food. But her style tends to the sentimental and overripe, and the characters never quite come alive in the way the setting does.
As a history told through food, this is very good; as a novel, it lacks a little savor.